Induction of erection occurs after stimulation of the cavernous and pelvic nerve plexus. Conversely, stimulation of the sympathetic trunk leads to detumescence. The reflex erectile response requires that the sacral reflex arc remain intact. Tactile and sensory signals are received by the somatic sensory pathways and integrate with parasympathetic nuclei within the sacral spinal cord (S2-4) leading to induction of erection via cholinergic signaling. These reflexogenic erections remain intact with upper motor neuron injuries. Psychogenic erections do not require that the sacral reflex arc remain intact. In a cat models, spinal cord removal below L4/L5 led to absence of a reflexogenic erection but stimulation of the medial preoptic area (MPOA) or placement near a female cat in heat led to erection (5,6). Psychogenic erections occur via induction of central pathways traveling from the brain through the sympathetic chain. Non-penile sensory pathways induced by sight, sound, touch and smell travel through the MPOA to the erection centers within the cord T11-L2, and S2-S4 to induce erections (7). When a sacral lower motor neuron injury is present in men, below T12 these types of erections are more likely to occur (8). Spinal cord lesions above T9 are not associated with psychogenic erections (9). Rigidity of erections is less with psychogenic erections because the thoracolumbar sympathetic outflow may contain a decreased concentration of neurons compared to the parasympathetic outflow from the sacral spinal cord.
The first line and by far the most common treatment today is with the prescription drug sildenafil citrate, sold under the brand name Viagra. An estimated 20 million prescriptions for the pill have been filled since it was approved by the FDA in March 1998. It is also the most effective treatment with a success rate of more than 60%. The drug boosts levels of a substance called cyclic GMP, which is responsible for widening the blood vessels of the penis. In clinical studies, Viagra produced headaches in 16% of men who took it, and other side effects included flushing, indigestion, and stuffy nose.
Supplements are popular and often cheaper than prescription drugs for ED. However, supplements have not been tested to see how well they work or if they are a safe treatment for ED. Patients should know that many over-the-counter drugs have been found on drug testing to have ‘bootlegged' PDE 5 Inhibitors as their main ingredient. The amounts of Viagra, Cialis, Levitra or Stendra that may be in these supplements is not under quality control and may differ from pill to pill. The FDA has issued consumer warnings and alerts.
For best results, men with ED take these pills about an hour or two before having sex. The drugs require normal nerve function to the penis. PDE5 inhibitors improve on normal erectile responses helping blood flow into the penis. Use these drugs as directed. About 7 out of 10 men do well and have better erections. Response rates are lower for Diabetics and cancer patients.