In some cases, however, these drugs may be unsuitable for patients with heart disease. If you are considering one of these drugs and you have heart disease, as many diabetics do, be sure to tell your doctor. In rare cases, the pills may create “priapism,” a prolonged and painful erection lasting six hours or more (although reversible with prompt medical attention).
Some self-administered measures may be useful in the primary care setting to screen for and evaluate the degree of ED.12 The most commonly used instrument is the International Index of Erectile Function, a 15-item questionnaire that has been validated in many populations and is considered the gold standard to evaluate patients for ED.13 The Sexual Health Inventory for Men is a short-form, 5-item questionnaire developed to monitor treatment progress.12 It is important to recognize that short-form questionnaire does not evaluate specific areas of the sexual cycle, such as sexual desire, ejaculation, and orgasm; however, it may be useful in discussing ED with patients and evaluating treatment results over time.
Much of the emphasis on erectile pathophysiology has been placed on penile smooth muscle function and cavernosal hemodynamics. The neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of erection can be characterized but its full extent is poorly understood. Neurologic disease does not always reproducibly affect erections in a uniform manner compared to other types of sexual dysfunction (SD). This offers many obstacles to understanding the role the nervous systems plays in SD and consequently obscures what treatment options readily optimize erections specific to the neurologic insult.
The mechanisms by which testosterone plays a role in erectile function are not completely understood. A study evaluating the effect of testosterone on erections in surgically castrated rabbits and control animals, in which the rabbits’ intracavernosal pressures were compared after cavernosal nerve stimulation, determined that castrated rabbits had much lower pressures after stimulation than control rabbits did.  Notably, the pressures increased when castrated rabbits received exogenous testosterone replacement.
Cavallini, G., Modenini, F., Vitali, G., & Koverech, A. (2005, November). Acetyl-L-carnitine plus propionyl-L-carnitine improve efficacy of sildenafil in treatment of erectile dysfunction after bilateral nerve-sparing radical retropubic prostatectomy. Urology, 66(5), 1080-5. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0090429505006515
It appears that testosterone has NOS-independent pathways as well. In one study, castrated rats were implanted with testosterone pellets and then divided into a group that received an NOS inhibitor (L-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester [L-NAME]) and a control group that received no enzyme.  The castrated rats that were given testosterone pellets and L-NAME still had partial erections, a result suggesting the presence of a pathway independent of NOS activity.
Positron emission tomorgraphy (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have led to a greater understanding to which center are activated during arousal. These imaging studies measure increases in cerebral blood flow or changes in cerebral activity on a real-time basis. Studies are performed when male subject are aroused by visual cues (usually sexual explicit photos or videos) and compared to images obtained during exposure to sexually neutral cues differences can be measured. Several studies have identified that the inferior frontal lobes, inferior temporal lobes and insular gyrus, and occipital lobes are involved with processing arousal cues, although each are likely to process different stimuli (20-23).
While pills for ED are convenient, some men sustain stronger erections by injecting medication directly into the penis. Drugs approved for this purpose work by widening the blood vessels, causing the penis to become engorged with blood. Another option is inserting a medicated pellet into the urethra. The pellet can trigger an erection within 10 minutes.
Size matters, so get slim and stay slim. A trim waistline is one good defense — a man with a 42-inch waist is 50% more likely to have ED than one with a 32-inch waist. Losing weight can help fight erectile dysfunction, so getting to a healthy weight and staying there is another good strategy for avoiding or fixing ED. Obesity raises risks for vascular disease and diabetes, two major causes of ED. And excess fat interferes with several hormones that may be part of the problem as well.
Exercise regularly. Make it a priority to get outside or go to the gym to walk, run, swim, bike, or do strength training at least 4 times a week. According to a study conducted by Harvard, walking 30 minutes a day caused a 41% drop in risk for ED. Getting regular exercise aids circulation, getting your blood pumping through your entire body. When it's time to sustain an erection, better circulation is key.
Cavernosography measurement of the vascular pressure in the corpus cavernosum. Saline is infused under pressure into the corpus cavernosum with a butterfly needle, and the flow rate needed to maintain an erection indicates the degree of venous leakage. The leaking veins responsible may be visualized by infusing a mixture of saline and x-ray contrast medium and performing a cavernosogram. In Digital Subtraction Angiography (DSA), the images are acquired digitally.
If you’re experiencing psychological ED, you may benefit from talk therapy. Therapy can help you manage your mental health. You’ll likely work with your therapist over several sessions, and your therapist will address things like major stress or anxiety factors, feelings around sex, or subconscious conflicts that could be affecting your sexual well-being.
Additionally, the physiologic processes involving erections begin at the genetic level. Certain genes become activated at critical times to produce proteins vital to sustaining this pathway. Some researchers have focused on identifying particular genes that place men at risk for ED. At present, these studies are limited to animal models, and little success has been reported to date.  Nevertheless, this research has given rise to many new treatment targets and a better understanding of the entire process.
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.
Having your current medication checked – if you are taking medication already, it could be that your erection problems are a side effect. Have a doctor check whether this is the cause of your problems and if it is, you might be able to switch medications and then find that your erectile dysfunction goes away completely – or at least improves. Medications that can cause erection problems include:
Nerves originating in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia innervate the penis. There are autonomic (parasympathetic and sympathetic), and somatic separate and integrated pathways. The autonomic pathways neurons originate in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia from the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, respectively. They merge to form the cavernous nerves that travel alongside the prostate, enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to affect the neurovascular events required for tumescence and detumescence. The somatic nerves send sensory information from the penile skin, glans, and urethra via the dorsal penile nerve and pudendal nerve to the spinal cord. The somatic nerves also initiate contraction of the ischio- and bulbocavernosus muscles.
ED is defined as the inability to achieve a full erection or the inability to maintain an erection adequate for sexual intimacy. Other types of sexual dysfunction such as premature ejaculation and low libido may occur; however, the most common and disruptive problem in men is ED. Although most men will experience periodic episodes of ED, these episodes tend to become more frequent with advancing age.
The information shared on our websites is information developed solely from internal experts on the subject matter, including medical advisory boards, who have developed guidelines for our patient content. This material does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. No one associated with the National Kidney Foundation will answer medical questions via e-mail. Please consult a physician for specific treatment recommendations.