Erectile dysfunction (ED) is trouble getting or keeping an erection of the penis that is firm enough for sex.
An erection happens when blood fills the penis. Some blood vessels opens wide to let blood flow into the penis. Other blood vessels shrink to keep the blood from leaving the penis. The change in the blood vessels is controlled by signals from nerves. ED may be caused by problems with any of these steps, such as:
The blood vessels that keep the blood in the penis may be injured or have disease. Blood can leak out from the damaged areas during an erection. It may be difficult to get or keep an erection because the blood keeps leaking out.
ED may be caused by:
- Damage to nerves that control blood vessels
- Damage to nerves that affect feeling in the penis
- Damage or disease in blood vessels of the penis
Blood Vessels and Nerves of the Male Pelvis
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Emotional stress may change nerve signals from the brain. This is more likely a cause in men who suddenly develop ED.
ED is more common in men who are 65 and older. It is also more common in men of Hispanic descent.
Factors that increase your chance of developing ED include:
Certain medical conditions:
- Surgery or injury to nerves:
- Vascular surgery
Pelvic surgeries, particularly for
- Spinal cord injury
- Habits that may cause ED include:
Side effect of medications such as:
- Antihypertensives—for high blood pressure
- Antihistamines—common as allergy medication
- A less firm penis
- Fewer erections
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will ask about the quality and length of erections. Your answers may help the diagnosis.
Nocturnal penile tumescence testing will give the doctor more information. The test will check for erections while you sleep. If you have normal erections during sleep the cause may be emotional. If you have problems with an erection even while you sleep, the cause may be physical.
Other tests may be done to look for a cause:
- Blood tests
imaging—to look at the blood flow in the penis.
Treatment options include:
Your doctor may prescribe:
Phosphodiesterase inhibitors—do not take these medications if you are also taking nitrates
- Testosterone supplements—note: these supplements are only helpful if you have low testosterone levels
- Alprostadil , either injected into the penis or inserted into the urethra as a suppository
Use caution and talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications for ED. Some of them may be unsafe.
A vacuum device
pulls blood into the penis. A band will then be placed around the penis to keep the erection.
A vacuum device may include:
- Plastic cylinder for the penis
- Hand pump for pumping air out of the cylinder
- Elastic band for holding the erection after removal of the cylinder
Vascular surgery may be helpful for some. It is done to repair the blood vessel leaks.
Implants may be placed in the penis. The implants can be inflated when needed to make an erection.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
Sex therapy may help ED resulting from:
- Unhelpful sexual techniques
- Relationship problems
To reduce your chance of becoming impotent:
Follow treatment plans to manage
blood pressure, diabetes, or depression.
If you smoke,
talk to your doctor about ways to quit. Smoking is significantly associated with ED in older men.
Erectile dysfunction. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113875/Erectile-dysfunction. Updated February 29, 2016. Accessed September 7, 2017.
Erectile dysfunction. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at:
http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/ED/index.aspx. Updated March 28, 2012. Accessed September 7, 2017.
Viera A, Shenenberger D, Green G. Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(4):1159-1166.
What is erectile dysfunction? Urology Care Foundation website. Available at:
Accessed September 7, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board Adrienne Carmack, MD
Please 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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