In their extensive review, Bassil and coworkers summarise the benefits and risks, with benefits such as improvement of sexual function, bone density, muscle strength, cognition and overall improvement in quality of life. Among the risks that have been suggested include erythrocytosis, liver toxicity, worsening of sleep apnoea and cardiac function, possibly increasing symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). They also note that although a possibility of stimulation of prostate cancer has been hypothesised, no scientific or clinical evidence exists to this possible risk.38
Since sexual arousal is a complex process involving hormones, emotions, nerves, muscles, blood vessels and the brain, a malfunction in any of these can lead to ED. Stress, exhaustion and psychological issues can also contribute, and anxiety over maintaining an erection can actually make it harder to attain. In short, any condition that inhibits blood flow to the penis can lead to ED.
Tests such as the bulbocavernosus reflex test are used to determine if there is sufficient nerve sensation in the penis. The physician squeezes the glans (head) of the penis, which immediately causes the anus to contract if nerve function is normal. A physician measures the latency between squeeze and contraction by observing the anal sphincter or by feeling it with a gloved finger inserted past the anus.
Pay attention to your vascular health. High blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides can all damage arteries in the heart (causing heart attack), in the brain (causing stroke), and leading to the penis (causing ED). An expanding waistline also contributes. Check with your doctor to find out whether your vascular system — and thus your heart, brain, and penis — is in good shape or needs a tune-up through lifestyle changes and, if necessary, medications.
Erectile dysfunction is known to be associated with general health status, thus, lifestyle modification improves erectile function and decreases the rate of decline of function with aging. One year after discontinuation of smoking, patients were found to have a 25% improvement in erectile quality.16 In addition, multivariate analysis found obesity is associated with erectile dysfunction with an approximately 50% increase in ED in obese men as compared with normal weight men.17
Some men report being helped by an oral medication called yohimbine, which comes from the bark of a tree that grows in India and Africa. This drug, which needs to be taken every day, has been reported to help about 20 to 25 percent of the men taking it. A relatively new but widely used oral medication called Viagra requires a careful medical evaluation by your doctor.
Erectile dysfunction in older men. Because erections primarily involve the blood vessels, it is not surprising that the most common causes in older men are conditions that block blood flow to the penis, such as atherosclerosis or diabetes. Another vascular cause may be a faulty vein, which lets blood drain too quickly from the penis. Other physical disorders, as well as hormonal imbalances and certain operations, may also result in erectile dysfunction.
Over a 2-year period, a third of the men randomized to a weight loss program demonstrated resolution of erectile dysfunction.10 A Mediterranean diet and nutritional counseling reported increased erectile quality.18 Little evidence supports that increased physical activity alone improves erectile quality; however, the strong association between physical activity and lower BMI is well described, and therefore recommended for men with erectile dysfunction and without a contraindication to physical activity.
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.
Erythrocytosis has been noted in men on TRT, and should be monitored every 6–12 months depending upon the patients’ response to changes in haematocrit levels. For mild elevations, the dosage of testosterone can be decreased or the interval of using the medication can be increased. With the haematocrit greater than 50%, decisions to temporarily discontinue the medication or periodic phlebotomy may be indicated.38
Some men say certain alternative medicines taken by mouth can help them get and maintain an erection. However, not all “natural” medicines or supplements are safe. Combinations of certain prescribed and alternative medicines could cause major health problems. To help ensure coordinated and safe care, discuss your use of alternative medicines, including use of vitamin and mineral supplements, with a health care professional. Also, never order a medicine online without talking with your doctor.
Tests such as the bulbocavernosus reflex test are used to determine if there is sufficient nerve sensation in the penis. The physician squeezes the glans (head) of the penis, which immediately causes the anus to contract if nerve function is normal. A physician measures the latency between squeeze and contraction by observing the anal sphincter or by feeling it with a gloved finger inserted past the anus.

The pathogenesis of organic ED is related to dysfunction of the endothelium. Endothelial cells can become injured through a variety of mechanisms, most of which cause oxidative stress on the tissues. Many of these causes of oxidative stress are related to lifestyle issues which lead to hypertension, diabetes and dyslipidaemia (figure 1). Endothelial cell dysfunction results in reduction of endothelium-dependent vasorelaxation as well as increased adhesion of leukocytes to the endothelium. Endothelial cell injury then leads to a variety of sequelae, including ED, other types of vasoconstriction, atherosclerosis and thrombus formation.18
Psychosocial problems are important and may cause erectile dysfunction by themselves or together with other causes of erectile dysfunction, such as diabetes and heart disease. Relationships are complicated and many factors cause tensions, which can affect sexual relations. For some men, these problems can become ongoing and it can help to talk through the issue with a skilled counsellor. It is important to know that the longer erectile dysfunction is left untreated, the greater the effect on relationships. This is another reason why early treatment of erectile dysfunction is important.

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Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
The nerves and endothelium of sinusoids and vessels in the penis produce and release transmitters and modulators that control the contractile state of corporal smooth muscles. Although the membrane receptors play an important role, downstream signaling pathways are also important. The RhoA–Rho kinase pathway is involved in the regulation of cavernosal smooth muscle contraction. [12]

Performance anxiety can be another cause of impotence. If a person wasn’t able to achieve an erection in the past, he may fear he won’t be able to achieve an erection in the future. A person may also find he can’t achieve an erection with a certain partner. Someone with ED related to performance anxiety may be able to have full erections when masturbating or when sleeping, yet he isn’t able to maintain an erection during intercourse.
The sympathetic pathway originates from the 11th thoracic to the 2nd lumbar spinal segments and goes via the white rami to enter the sympathetic chain ganglia. Subsequently nerves travel through the lumbar splanchnic to inferior mesenteric and superior hypogastric nerves to the pelvic plexus. The T10 through T12 segments are most often the origin of sympathetic fibers, and the sympathetic chain ganglia that innervate the penis are located in the sacral and caudal ganglia (3).
In some cases, ED can be a warning sign of more serious disease. One study suggests ED is a strong predictor of heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease. The researchers say all men diagnosed with ED should be evaluated for cardiovascular disease. This does not mean every man with ED will develop heart disease, or that every man with heart disease has ED, but patients should be aware of the link.
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