Erectile Dysfunction (also called Impotence or Problem having an erection) is the inability to develop or maintain erection of the penis during sexual activity. It can have psychological consequences. It is a common male disorder usually affecting older men that significantly impacts quality of life and well being. Erectile Dysfunction affects 50% of men older than 60 years of age. Younger men typically report a great degree of bother than older men which leads them to seek treatment at the earliest. Risk factors and co-morbid conditions for cardiac diseases like hypertension, diabetes, hyper-cholesterolemia, work related stress, depression and metabolic syndrome contribute to ED. Lifestyle factors including smoking, obesity and lack of exercise are also significant predictors of ED.
Physiology of Penile Erection and Detumescence
Erection and flaccidity of the penis is a vascular phenomenon. The penile erectile tissue or the corpora cavernosa plays a key role in the erectile process. Sexual stimulation triggers the release of chemicals which cause relaxation of smooth muscles. This increases blood flow in the arteries and the smaller arterioles. The incoming blood is trapped by the vascular spaces. The venous outflow is reduced by compression of the veins. The partial pressure of oxygen in the blood rises from 35 to 90mm/hg and the pressure in the cavernosa climbs to 100mm/hg which erects the penis. A rigid erection occurs with further contraction of the pelvic floor muscles. The rigid penis becomes flaccid with a slow opening of the venous channels and then a fast pressure decrease with a fully restored venous outflow.
What Causes of Erectile Dysfunction?
- Medical causes such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure
- Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis
- Increasing age-more common in men around 60’s
- Surgical injury to nerves as in prostate surgeries
- Smoking –as it causes narrowing of arteries of the penis which are involved in erection
- Psychological causes –performance anxiety, stress, mental disorders
- Drugs such as antidepressants, nicotine etc
- Low testosterone levels
Evaluation of Erectile Dysfunction
It is important to understand that both organic and psychosocial factors play a role in the etiology of erectile dysfunction. Hence a thorough detailed history without too many prying questions is key. Sometimes patients may feel embarrassed to answer direct questions and hence a self administered questionnaire may help. Sometimes picture cards explaining the anatomy of erection may also be used for explaining.
A thorough gentle physical examination of the genito urinary system is done. It is important to remember that ED and heart disease share certain comorbidities and hence a thorough evaluation of the heart lungs and abdomen is done. The penis is examined for plaques, curvatures, and the position of the meatal opening. Presence and size of both testis is determined. Features suggestive of hypogonadism(testis size, body hair, voice) are looked for.
Lab Tests for Erectile Dysfunction
If not previously done, some basic studies should be considered to identify unrecognized systemic conditions that may predispose to erectile dysfunction. These include a complete blood count, urinalysis, renal function, lipid profile, fasting blood sugar, and thyroid function. Hormone testing for prolactin and testosterone the male hormone should be done.
Additional tests for treating Erectile Dysfunction
Penile Doppler for checking Erectile Dysfunction / Impotence:
Erectile Dysfunction can be Psychogenic, Neurogenic or Vasculogenic. In order to identify a potential cause, a Penile Doppler Ultrasound testing is often employed. As ED is due to vasculogenic reasons in 50-70% individuals, the test serves to identify arterial or venous abnormalities which contribute to the same. The test is done by injecting a small quantity say 2ml of vasodialting agent such as Papaverine into the cavernosa. The Peak Systolic Velocity and The End Diastolic Velocities are noted.
This test involves the use of electromagnetic vibration to determine sensitivity and nerve function. A decreased sensitivity to these vibrations may indicate nerve damage.
Treatment of Erectile Dysfunction
- Lifestyle Modification
- Losing weight, keeping fit, sleeping well, reducing stress and anxiety are some of the lifestyle changes that go a long way in helping people with ED.
These drugs form the mainstay of treatment in the management of ED. These drugs act by increasing the blood flow into the penis. There are various medications that can be prescribed based on the duration of action, bio-availability of the drug and side effect profile.
Testosterone is the male hormone that helps with erection and sometimes Total Testosterone levels can be misleading as most of this hormone is bound to a protein called sex hormone binding globulin. The free hormone is the active form and testosterone supplements help with erectile function.
This is another tool that can be used for men with ED. The device is a hollow cylinder which helps draw blood into the penis.
Penile Implants for Erection Problems
These are devices which are implanted into the penis to help achieve erection. It requires a surgical procedure under regional or general anesthesia. There are non-inflatable and inflatable devices.
And finally, Smokers should QUIT SMOKING!