An erection problem is the inability to get or maintain an erection that is firm enough for a man to have satisfactory intercourse. You may be unable to get an erection at all, or you may lose the erection during intercourse before you are ready. If the condition persists, the medical term is erectile dysfunction.
Erectile dysfunction; Impotence; Sexual dysfunction - male
Erection problems are common in adult men. In fact, almost all men experience occasional difficulty getting or maintaining an erection. In many cases, it is a temporary condition that will go away with little or no treatment. In other cases, it can be an ongoing problem that can damage a man's self esteem and harm his relationship with his partner, and thus requires treatment.
If you have difficulty having or keeping an erection more than 25% of the time, it is considered a problem.
In the past, erection problems were thought to be "all in the man's mind." Men often were given unhelpful advice such as "don't worry" or "just relax and it will take care of itself." Today, doctors believe that when the problem is not temporary or does not go away on its own, physical factors are often the cause.
One way to know if the cause is physical or psychologic is to determine if you are having nighttime erections. Normally, men have 3 to 5 erections per night, each lasting up to 30 minutes. Your doctor can explain a test to find out if you are having the normal number of nighttime erections.
In most men, erection difficulties do not affect their sex drive.
Premature ejaculation (when orgasm comes on too quickly) is not the same as impotence. Together with your partner, you should seek counseling for this problem, which is usually due to psychological factors.
Male infertility is also quite different from impotence. A man who is unable to maintain an erection may be very capable of producing sperm that could fertilize an egg. An infertile man is usually able to maintain an erection, but he may be unable to father a child due to problems with sperm count or other factors.
An erection requires the interaction of your brain, nerves, hormones, and blood vessels. Anything that interferes with the normal process can lead to a problem.
Common causes of erection problems include:
- Diseases and conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or thyroid conditions, poor blood flow, depression, or neurologic disorders (such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease)
- Medications such as blood pressure medications (especially beta-blockers), heart medications (such as digoxin), some peptic ulcer medications, sleeping pills, and antidepressants
- Nerve damage from prostate surgery
- Nicotine, alcohol, or cocaine use
- Poor communication with your partner
- Repeated feelings of doubt and failure or negative communication that reinforce the erection problems
- Spinal cord injury
- Stress, fear, anxiety, or anger
- Unrealistic sexual expectations, which make sex a task rather than a pleasure
Erection problems tend to become more common as you age, but they can affect men at any age and at any time in their lives. Physical causes are more common in older men, while psychological causes are more common in younger men.
Low levels of testosterone rarely lead to erection problems, but may reduce a man's sex drive.
For many men, lifestyle changes can help:
- Cut down on smoking, alcohol, and illegal drugs.
- Get plenty of rest and take time to relax.
- Exercise and eat a healthy diet to maintain good circulation.
- Use safe sex practices, which reduces fear of HIV and STDs.
- Talk openly to your partner about sex and your relationship. If you are unable to do this, counseling can help.
Couples who cannot talk to each other are likely to have problems with sexual intimacy. Men who have trouble communicating their feelings may find it difficult to share with their partner any anxieties about their sexual performance. In these circumstances, counseling can be very helpful for both you and your partner.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your doctor if:
- The problem does not go away with self-care measures -- effective treatments are available
- The problem begins after an injury or prostate surgery
- You have other symptoms like low back pain, abdominal pain, or change in urination
If erection problems seem to be caused by a medication you are taking for an unrelated condition, consult your doctor. You may benefit from reducing the dose of the drug or changing to another drug that has the same result but not the same side effects. DO NOT change or stop taking any medications without first talking to your doctor.
Talk to your health care provider if your erection problems are related to fear of recurring heart problems. Sexual intercourse is usually safe in these circumstances.
Call your doctor immediately or go to an emergency room if medication for erection problems give you an unwanted erection that lasts more than 4 hours. Permanent impotence or other lasting damage to your penis may result from this condition.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your doctor will perform a physical examination, which will likely include:
- Checking your blood flow (circulation)
- Exam of your penis
- Neurological exam
- Rectal exam
To help diagnose the cause of the problem, your doctor will ask medical history questions such as:
- Have you been able to achieve and maintain erections in the past?
- Is the difficulty in achieving erections or maintaining the erection?
- Do you have erections during sleep?
- How long have you had difficulty with erections?
- What medications are you taking (including prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, and recreational drugs)?
- Do you smoke? How much each day?
- Do you use alcohol? How much?
- Have you recently had surgery?
- Have you ever had vascular surgery or other treatments for your blood vessels?
- Are you depressed?
- Are you afraid or worried about something?
- Are you experiencing a lot of stress?
- Has your energy level decreased?
- Are you sleeping well each night?
- Are you afraid of sexual activity because of physical problems?
- Have there been any recent changes in your life?
- What other symptoms do you have?
- Have you noticed changes in sensations in your penis?
- Do you have any problems with urination?
Tests that may be done include:
- Blood tests, including complete blood count, metabolic panel, hormone profile, and PSA
- Neurological (nerve) testing
- Nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) to check for normal nighttime erections
- Penile ultrasound to check for blood vessel or blood flow problems
- Psychometric testing
- Rigidity monitoring
- Urine analysis
The treatment may depend on the cause. For example, if the problem is caused by a hormonal imbalance, medication to treat the underlying endocrine disorder will be prescribed. However, the same treatment may be used for many different causes. Consult your health care provider for appropriate evaluation and management.
There are many treatment options today. These include medicines taken by mouth, injections into the penis, medicines inserted into the urethra (urinary channel), vacuum devices, and surgery. In order to treat erectile dysfunction effectively, you must be aware of and comfortable with the possible side effects and complications that may occur with each therapy.
Sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra), and tadalafil (Cialis) are medicines prescribed for erection difficulties caused by either physical or psychological problems. The drugs work only when the man is sexually aroused. The effect is usually seen within 15 - 45 minutes.
These drugs are called phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE5) inhibitors.
Although these drugs have become extremely popular, they do not enhance erections if you are not impotent. And they DO have side effects, which can be as serious as a heart attack or as minor as muscle pain or facial flushing.
These drugs should not be used with certain other medications, including nitroglycerin. When taken with nitroglycerin, a man's blood pressure can become dangerously low. Some men have died after taking these drugs with nitroglycerin.
PDE5 inhibitors should be used with caution if you have any of the following conditions:
- Recent stroke
- Severe heart disease, such as unstable angina, a recent heart attack, or arrhythmia
- Severe heart failure
- Uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- Very low blood pressure (hypotension)
If pills do not work, options such as the following are available.
- Testosterone replacement using skin patches, topical gel, or injections into the muscle may be prescribed if your blood testosterone level is low.
- A medicine called alprostadil, injected into the penis or inserted into the urethra, improves blood flow to the penis. This usually works better than medications taken by mouth.
- An external vacuum device can be used to pull blood into the penis. A special rubber band is then used to maintain the erection during intercourse.
- For some patients, a surgically-placed penile implant (prosthesis) may also be recommended or needed.
Many herbs and dietary supplements are marketed to help sexual performance or desire. There are several special concerns for people taking alternative remedies for erectile dysfunction. Also, none of these remedies have been proven effective for treating erectile dysfunction.
Consult your health care provider to see if one of these treatments is right for you.
McVary, K. T.. Clinical practice. Erectile dysfunction. N Engl J Med. 2007 Dec; 357(24): 2472-81.
Melnik T, Soares BG, Nasselo AG. Psychosocial interventions for erectile dysfunction. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18;(3):CD004825.
Reviewed By: Reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc. Also reviewed by Scott Miller, MD, Urologist, private practice, Atlanta, Georgia.