In men, erectile dysfunction can be defined as being a persistent inability to get or keep an erection that is firm enough to attain sexual satisfaction. It should not be confused with the occasional incident when this occurs, which is an experience common to the vast majority of men for various reasons. These can include having had too much alcohol to drink, being overly-anxious about a new sexual partner, or being worried about current events in your life. The issue would only be classed as Erectile Dysfunction if it keeps happening again and again. Again, an erection once attained should be hard enough and last long enough to be satisfactory. Other conditions, like premature ejaculation, may interfere in this process but these are different problems, and would be treated differently.
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An erection might last indefinitely if it weren’t for chemicals in the body called phosphodiesterases. They work at reversing the process trying to return the penis to being soft (i.e., flaccid). Usually there is a balance between the chemicals that result in an erection lasting for as long as it is needed, which allows the phosphodiesterases to do their job when they should and no sooner. You wouldn’t want an erection forever so it is a good thing that phosphodiesterases exist.
Impotence is a common problem among men and is characterized by the consistent inability to sustain an erection sufficient for sexual intercourse or the inability to achieve ejaculation, or both. Erectile dysfunction can vary. It can involve a total inability to achieve an erection or ejaculation, an inconsistent ability to do so, or a tendency to sustain only very brief erections.
If surgical intervention is an acceptable option, the work-up then proceeds with a noctural penile tumescense (NPT) test, the single most valuable study to establish the diagnosis of organic impotence. The NPT test exploits the fact that males from birth to old age normally have erections during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Psychogenic impotence is associated with normal erections during sleep. In organic impotence there should be no evidence of erection or, if erections are present, they should be limited and poorly sustained.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
In men of all ages, erectile failure may diminish willingness to initiate sexual relationships because of fear of inadequate sexual performance or rejection. Because males, especially older males, are particularly sensitive to the social support of intimate relationships, withdrawal from these relationships because of such fears may have a negative effect on their overall health.