Impotence (Erectile Dysfunction)

by Heather SmithEn Espaol (Spanish Version)More InDepth Information on This Condition DefinitionImpotence is the inability to attain or maintain an erection of the penis that is firm enough for sexual intercourse. CausesTo initiate and maintain an erection, the penis must fill with blood. Nerve signals stimulate this engorgement. They prompt the blood vessels in the penis to expand so blood can fill it. Meanwhile, other blood vessels constrict, trapping blood inside.The following factors can cause erectile dysfunction: Venous LeakIf a leak in the blood vessels in the penis allows blood to escape, an erection may not be attainable, or may not last long. This can be caused by injury or disease. Neurovascular FunctionErection cannot be attained if nerve signals do not prompt blood vessels to expand or if blood flow to the penis is reduced.Nerve dysfunction can also diminish feeling in the penis resulting in impotence.Diabetes can interfere with nerve signals. There may be a complete loss of nighttime erections.Arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) can cause reduced blood flow.Peripheral neuropathy , spinal cord injury, and surgery can also damage nerves. Many medications also cause erectile dysfunction. Blood Vessels and Nerves of Male Pelvis 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.
Psychological FactorsThe brain initiates many of the nerve signals required for a successful erection. Emotional problems may play a role in men who suddenly develop impotence. Risk FactorsA risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Risk factors include: Age: 65 and older Medical conditions: DiabetesArteriosclerosis (hardening of arteries)Chronic kidney diseaseLiver failurePeyronie's disease (bending of the penis caused by scar tissue)Endocrine disorders Neurological disorders (ie, multiple sclerosis , peripheral neuropathy , stroke ) Hypertension Psychiatric disorders (ie, anxiety , depression ) Traumatic conditions: Vascular surgery Pelvic surgeries (particularly for prostate cancer ) Spinal cord injury Behaviors: Alcohol useIllegal drug useAnabolic steroid useHeavy smokingInterpersonal conflicts with a sexual partner Medications: AntihypertensivesAntihistaminesAntidepressantsTranquilizersAntipsychotics Symptoms Symptoms include:
  • A less firm penis
  • Fewer erections


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Expect questions about the frequency, quality, and duration of your erections. Your answers may help determine if primarily psychological or physical factors are causing your impotence.

The doctor will examine your penis, testes, and rectum. If a physical cause is suspected, the doctor may order laboratory tests. These laboratory tests will include hormone levels such as thyroid function tests, prolactin levels, and testosterone levels.

Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Testing

This test can distinguish psychogenic impotence from those due to neurovascular causes.


Sometimes Doppler imaging may be done to look at the blood flow and to make sure that there is no obstruction in the arteries or veins that supply the penis.


Treatment options include:


This includes a group of medications that are known as phosphodiesterase inhibitors. Sildenafil, tadalafil, and vardenafil are some of the available ones. These are not taken in concomitant use of nitrates .Your doctor will evaluate you for any contraindications before you take these medications.

Oral Testosterone

Oral testosterone is used only for men whose impotence is caused by low testosterone levels.

Drugs Injected Into the PenisAlprostadil may be used and is either injected into the penis or inserted into the urethra as a suppository. Vacuum DevicesPlastic cylinder for the penisHand pump for pumping air out of the cylinderElastic band for holding the erection after removal of the cylinder Vascular SurgeryVascular surgery repairs venous leaks and has been shown to be effective in some cases. Penile ImplantsThese are semirigid, malleable, and inflatable implants that are surgically inserted into the penis. Penile Implant 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc. Sex Therapy Sex therapy may help impotence resulting from: Ineffective sexual techniquesRelationship problemsAnxietyDepression Prevention To reduce your chance of becoming impotent: Take medications to manage blood pressure, diabetes, or depression.If medications may be the problem, ask your doctor about changing the medication or adjusting the regimen.Maintain a healthful lifestyle and diet.Do not smoke. Smoking is significantly associated with erectile dysfunction in middle-aged and older men.Try ongoing communication and relationship counseling to prevent or manage interpersonal conflict. RESOURCES: American Urological Association
UrologyHealth.org CANADIAN RESOURCES Canadian Urological Association Sexualityandu.ca References: American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: . American Urological Association website. Available at: . National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: . Last reviewed February 2008 by Jill D. Landis, MDPlease be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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