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Article title: Impotence: NIDDK
Main condition: erectile dysfunction
Conditions: erectile dysfunction
Impotence can be a total inability to achieve erection, an inconsistent ability to do so, or a tendency to sustain only brief erections. These variations make defining impotence and estimating its incidence difficult. Experts believe impotence affects between 10 and 15 million American men. In 1985, the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey counted 525,000 doctor-office visits for erectile dysfunction.
Impotence usually has a physical cause, such as disease, injury, or drug side-effects. Any disorder that impairs blood flow in the penis has the potential to cause impotence. Incidence rises with age: about 5 percent of men at the age of 40 and between 15 and 25 percent of men at the age of 65 experience impotence. Yet, it is not an inevitable part of aging.
Impotence is treatable in all age groups, and awareness of this fact has been growing. More men have been seeking help and returning to near-normal sexual activity because of improved, successful treatments for impotence. Urologists, who specialize in problems of the urinary tract, have traditionally treated impotence--especially complications of impotence.
Erection begins with sensory and mental stimulation. Impulses from the brain and local nerves cause the muscles of the corpora cavernosa to relax, allowing blood to flow in and fill the open spaces. The blood creates pressure in the corpora cavernosa, making the penis expand. The tunica albuginea helps to trap the blood in the corpora cavernosa, thereby sustaining erection. Erection is reversed when muscles in the penis contract, stopping the inflow of blood and opening outflow channels.
Damage to arteries, smooth muscles, and fibrous tissues, often as a result of disease, is the most common cause of impotence. Diseases--including diabetes, kidney disease, chronic alcoholism, multiple sclerosis, atherosclerosis, and vascular disease--account for about 70 percent of cases of impotence. Between 35 and 50 percent of men with diabetes experience impotence.
Surgery (for example, prostate surgery) can injure nerves and arteries near the penis, causing impotence. Injury to the penis, spinal cord, prostate, bladder, and pelvis can lead to impotence by harming nerves, smooth muscles, arteries, and fibrous tissues of the corpora cavernosa.
Also, many common medicines produce impotence as a side effect. These include high blood pressure drugs, antihistamines, antidepressants, tranquilizers, appetite suppressants, and cimetidine (an ulcer drug).
Experts believe that psychological factors cause 10 to 20 percent of cases of impotence. These factors include stress, anxiety, guilt, depression, low self-esteem, and fear of sexual failure. Such factors are broadly associated with more than 80 percent of cases of impotence, usually as secondary reactions to underlying physical causes.
Other possible causes of impotence are smoking, which affects blood flow in veins and arteries, and hormonal abnormalities, such as insufficient testosterone.
A history of using certain prescription drugs or illegal drugs can suggest a chemical cause. Drug effects account for 25 percent of cases of impotence. Cutting back on or substituting certain medications often can alleviate the problem.
Oral testosterone can reduce impotence in some men with low levels of natural testosterone. Patients also have claimed effectiveness of other oral drugs--including yohimbine hydrochloride, dopamine and serotonin agonists, and trazodone--but no scientific studies have proved the effectiveness of these drugs in relieving impotence. Some observed improvements following their use may be examples of the placebo effect, that is, a change that results simply from the patient's believing that an improvement will occur.
Many men gain potency by injecting drugs into the penis, causing it to become engorged with blood. Drugs such as papaverine hydrochloride, phentolamine, and alprostadil (marked as Caverject) widen blood vessels. These drugs may create unwanted side effects, however, including persistent erection (known as priapism) and scarring. Nitroglycerin, a muscle relaxant, sometimes can enhance erection when rubbed on the surface of the penis.
A system for inserting a pellet of alprostadil into the urethra is marketed as MUSE. The system uses a pre-filled applicator to deliver the pellet about an inch deep into the urethra at the tip of the penis. An erection will begin within 8 to 10 minutes and may last 30 to 60 minutes. The most common side effects of the preparation are aching in the penis, testicles, and area between the penis and rectum; warmth or burning sensation in the urethra; redness of the penis due to increased blood flow; and minor urethral bleeding or spotting.
Research on drugs for treating impotence is expanding rapidly. Patients should ask their doctors about the latest advances.
One variation of the vacuum device involves a semirigid rubber sheath that is placed on the penis and remains there after attaining erection and during intercourse.
Malleable implants usually consist of paired rods, which are inserted surgically into the corpora cavernosa, the twin chambers running the length of the penis. The user manually adjusts the position of the penis and, therefore, the rods. Adjustment does not affect the width or length of the penis.
Inflatable implants consist of paired cylinders, which are surgically inserted inside the penis and can be expanded using pressurized fluid (see figure 3). Tubes connect the cylinders to a fluid reservoir and pump, which also are surgically implanted. The patient inflates the cylinders by pressing on the small pump, located under the skin in the scrotum. Inflatable implants can expand the length and width of the penis somewhat. They also leave the penis in a more natural state when not inflated.
Surgery to repair arteries can reduce impotence caused by obstructions that block the flow of blood to the penis. The best candidates for such surgery are young men with discrete blockage of an artery because of an injury to the crotch area or fracture of the pelvis. The procedure is less successful in older men with widespread blockage.
Surgery to veins that allow blood to leave the penis usually involves
an opposite procedure--
intentional blockage. Blocking off veins (ligation) can reduce the leakage of blood that diminishes rigidity of the penis during erection. However, experts have raised questions about this procedure's long-term effectiveness.
An oral form of the drug phentolamine may soon join sildenafil in the armamentarium of noninvasive treatments for impotence. Other treatments in the experimental stages include reconstruction surgery for damaged veins and arteries in the penis. Whether or not this method proves to be safe and effective, ongoing improvements in traditional methods should continue to create more successful and widespread treatment of impotence.
Sexual Function Health Council
American Foundation for Urologic Disease
300 West Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
The Geddings Osbon, Sr. Foundation
P.O. Drawer 1593
Augusta, GA 30903-1593
3 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3580
E-mail: National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse
The National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health under the U.S. Public Health Service. Established in 1987, the clearinghouse provides information about diseases of the kidneys and urologic system to people with kidney and urologic disorders and to their families, health care professionals, and the public. NKUDIC answers inquiries; develops, reviews, and distributes publications; and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about kidney and urologic diseases.
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NIH Publication No. 95-3923
e-text last updated: August 2000
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