Impotence, often called erectile dysfunction, is the inability to achieve or maintain an erection long enough to engage in sexual intercourse.
Under normal circumstances, when a man is sexually stimulated, his brain sends a message down the spinal cord and into the nerves of the penis. The nerve endings in the penis release chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, which signal the corpora cavernosa (the two spongy rods of tissue that span the length of the penis) to relax and fill with blood. As they expand, the corpora cavernosa close off other veins that would normally drain blood from the penis. As the penis becomes engorged with blood, it enlarges and stiffens, causing an erection. Problems with blood vessels, nerves, or tissues of the penis can interfere with an erection.
Causes & symptoms
It is estimated that 10-20 million American men frequently suffer from impotence and that it strikes up to half of all men between the ages of 40 and 70. Doctors used to think that most cases of impotence were psychological in origin, but they now recognize that, at least in older men, physical causes may play a primary role in 60% or more of all cases. In men over the age of 60, the leading cause is atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, which can restrict the flow of blood to the penis. Injury or disease of the connective tissue, such as Peyronie's disease, may prevent the corpora cavernosa from completely expanding. Damage to the nerves of the penis, from certain types of surgery or neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, may also cause impotence. Men with diabetes are especially at risk for impotence because of their high risk of both atherosclerosis and a nerve disease called diabetic neuropathy.
Some drugs, including certain types of blood pressure medications, antihistamines, tranquilizers (especially before intercourse), and antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, including Prozac and Paxil) can interfere with erections. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and illicit drug use may also contribute. In rare cases, low levels of the male hormone testosterone may contribute to erectile failure. Finally, psychological factors, such as stress, guilt, or anxiety, may also play a role, even when the impotence is primarily due to organic causes.
When diagnosing the underlying cause of impotence, the doctor begins by asking the man a number of questions about when the problem began, whether it only happens with specific sex partners, and whether he ever wakes up with an erection. (Men whose impotence occurs only with certain partners or who wake up with erections are more likely to have a psychological cause for their impotence.) Sometimes, the man's sex partner is also interviewed. In some cases, marital discord may be a factor.
The doctor also obtains a thorough medical history to find out about past pelvic surgery, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and any medications the man may be taking. The physical examination should include a genital examination, a measurement of blood flow through the penis, hormone tests, and a glucose test for diabetes.
In some cases, nocturnal penile tumescence testing is performed to find out whether the man has erections while asleep. Healthy men usually have about four or five erections throughout the night. The man applies a device to the penis called a Rigiscan before going to bed at night, and the device can determine whether he has had erections. (Again, if a man is able to have normal erections at night, this suggests a psychological cause for his impotence.)
Years ago, the standard treatment for impotence was an implantable penile prosthesis or long-term psychotherapy. Although physical causes are now more readily diagnosed and treated, individual or marital counseling is still an effective treatment for impotence when emotional factors play a role. Fortunately, other approaches are now available to treat the physical causes of impotence.
One such approach is vacuum therapy. The man inserts his penis into a clear plastic cylinder and uses a pump to force air out of the cylinder. This forms a partial vacuum around the penis, which helps to draw blood into the corpora cavernosa. The man then places a special ring over the base of the penis to trap the blood inside it. The only side effect with this type of treatment is occasional bruising if the vacuum is left on too long.
Injection therapy involves injecting a substance into the penis to enhance blood flow and cause an erection. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug called alprostadil (Caverject) for this purpose in July of 1995. Alprostadil, which relaxes smooth muscle tissue to enhance blood flow into the penis, must be injected shortly before intercourse. Another, similar drug that is sometimes used is papaverine, which has not yet been approved by the FDA for this use. Either drug may sometimes cause painful erections or priapism (uncomfortable, prolonged erections), which must be treated with a shot of epinephrine.
Alprostadil may also be administered into the urethral opening of the penis. In MUSE (medical urethral system for erection), the man inserts a thin tube the width of a vermicelli noodle into his urethral opening and presses down on a plunger to deliver a tiny pellet containing alprostadil into his penis. The drug takes about 10 minutes to work and the erection lasts about an hour. The main side effect is a sensation of pain and burning in the urethra, which can last about 5 to 15 minutes.
In a long-awaited breakthrough, a pill for combating impotence was cleared for marketing by the FDA in March 1998. Called sildenafil citrate (brand name Viagra), the drug boosts levels of a substance called cyclic GMP, which is responsible for widening the blood vessels of the penis. Viagra has been shown to be effective in about 70-80% of men who take it, and it can even work in men with some psychological component to their impotence. Unlike drugs that are injected into the penis, Viagra causes an erection only when the man is sexually aroused. Furthermore, unlike vacuum therapy, injection therapy, and MUSE, taking a pill ahead of time does not interrupt sexual intercourse. In studies, Viagra produced headaches in 16% of men who took it, and other side effects included flushing, indigestion, and stuffy nose. Nonetheless, only 2.5% of men taking the drug dropped out of the study.
Implantable penile prostheses are usually considered a last resort for treating impotence. They are implanted in the corpora cavernosa to make the penis rigid without the need for blood flow. The semirigid type of prosthesis consists of a pair of flexible silicone rods that can be bent up or down. This type of device has a low failure rate but, unfortunately, it causes the penis to always be erect, which can be difficult to conceal under clothing.
The inflatable type of device consists of cylinders that are implanted in the corpora cavernosa, a fluid reservoir implanted in the abdomen, and a pump placed in the scrotum. The man squeezes the pump to move fluid into the cylinders and cause them to become rigid. (He reverses the process by squeezing the pump again.) While these devices allow for intermittent erections, they have a slightly higher malfunction rate than the silicon rods.
Men can return to sexual activity six to eight weeks after implantation surgery. Since implants affect the corpora cavernosa, they permanently take away a man's ability to have a natural erection.
In rare cases, if narrowed or diseased veins are responsible for impotence, surgeons may reroute the blood flow into the corpus cavernosa or remove leaking vessels. However, the success rate with these procedures has been very low, and they are still considered experimental.
A number of herbs have been promoted for treating impotence. The most widely touted herbs for this purpose are Coryanthe yohimbe (available by prescription as yohimbine, with the trade name Yocon) and gingko (Gingko biloba), although neither has been conclusively shown to help the condition in controlled studies. In addition, gingko carries some risk of abnormal blood clotting and should be avoided by men taking blood thinners such as coumadin. Other herbs promoted for treating impotence include true unicorn root (Aletrius farinosa), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), ginseng (Panax ginseng), and Siberian ginseng (Eleuthrococcus senticosus). Strychnos Nux vomica has been recommended, especially when impotence is caused by excessive alcohol, cigarettes, or dietary indiscretions, but it can be very toxic if taken improperly, so it should be used only under the strict supervision of a physician trained in its use.
With proper diagnosis, impotence can nearly always be treated or coped with successfully. Unfortunately, fewer than 10% of impotent men seek treatment.
There is no specific treatment to prevent impotence. Perhaps the most important measure is to maintain general good health and avoid atherosclerosis--by exercising regularly, controlling weight, controlling hypertension and high cholesterol levels, and avoiding smoking. Avoiding excessive alcohol intake may also help.
- A smooth muscle relaxant sometimes injected into the penis or applied to the urethral opening to treat impotence.
- A disorder in which plaques of cholesterol, lipids, and other debris build up on the inner walls of arteries, narrowing them.
- Corpora cavernosa
- Rods of spongy tissue found within the penis, which become engorged with blood in order to produce an erection. (The singular form of this term is corpus cavernosum.)
- Chemicals that modify or help transmit impulses between nerve synapses.
- A smooth muscle relaxant sometimes injected into the penis as a treatment for impotence.
- Peyronie's disease
- A disease resulting from scarring of the corpus cavernosa, causing painful erections.
- The small tube that drains urine from the bladder, as well as serving as a conduit for semen during ejaculation in men.
- An orally administered drug for erectile failure first cleared for marketing in the United States in March 1998.
For Your Information
- The Burton Goldberg Group. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide. Fife, WA: Future Medicine Publishing, 1995.
- Ryan, George. Reclaiming Male Sexuality: A Guide to Potency, Vitality, and Prowess. New York: M. Evans and Company, 1997.
- "American Urologic Association Issues Treatment Guidelines for Erectile Failure." American Family Physician 35 (April 1997): 1967-69.
- Burnett, Arthur L. "Erectile Dysfunction: A Practical Approach to Primary Care." Geriatrics 53 (February 1998): 36-42.
- Church, Paul, and Peta Gilyatt. "Impotence: No Need to Suffer in Secret." Harvard Health Letter (May 1996): 4-6.
- Leland, John, and Andrew Murr. "A Pill for Impotence?" Newsweek (November 17, 1997): 62-67.
- Linet, Otto L., and Francis G. Ogring. "Efficacy and Safety of Intracavernosal Alprostadil in Men with Erectile Dysfunction." New England Journal of Medicine 334 (April 4, 1996): 873-77.
- Lipshultz, Larry I. "Injection Therapy for Erectile Dysfunction." New England Journal of Medicine 334 (April 4, 1996): 913-14.
- American Foundation for Urologic Disease. 1128 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. (410) 468-1800.
- Impotence Institute of America, Impotents Anonymous. 10400 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 485, Columbia, MD 21044-3502. (800) 669-1603.
- National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. 3 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3580. (800) 891-5390.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.