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Home > Services > Men's Health > Men's Health Conditions > Erectile Dysfunction (ED)

Erectile Dysfunction (ED)

What is Erectile Dysfunction?

Erectile dysfunction (ED) or impotence is the inability to attain or maintain an erection of the penis that is firm enough for sexual intercourse.

To initiate and maintain an erection, the penis must fill with blood. One type of blood vessels open wide to allow blood into the penis. Meanwhile, a second type of blood vessel squeezes down to keep the blood from leaving the penis. Nerve signals cause the proper changes in the blood vessels.

What Causes Impotence?

The following factors can cause erectile dysfunction:

Venous Leak

The blood vessels that keep the blood from leaving the penis may be injured or have disease. This can cause a leak in these vessels. Blood can escape through these leaks during an erection. This means that an erection cannot be made or may not last long.

Neurovascular Function

Problems with the nerves and blood vessels can cause impotence. Conditions that can cause problems include:

  • Nerve dysfunction — can reduce feeling in the penis, resulting in impotence
  • Diabetes — interferes with nerve signals
  • Hardening of the arteries — can cause reduced blood flow
  • Peripheral neuropathy, spinal cord injury and surgery — can damage nerves
  • Side-effects from medications

Blood Vessels and Nerves of Male Pelvis

 erectile dysfunction

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Psychological Factors

Many of the nerve signals needed for an erection come from the brain. Emotional problems may play a role in men who suddenly develop impotence.

Are You at Risk for ED?

Factors that increase your chance of developing impotence include:

  • Age: 65 and older
  • Race: Hispanic
  • Obesity
  • Medical conditions:
    • Diabetes
    • Hardening of arteries
    • Chronic kidney disease
    • Liver failure
    • Peyronie's disease — bending of the penis caused by scar tissue
    • Endocrine disorders
    • Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy and stroke
    • Hypertension
    • Psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression
  • Traumatic conditions:
    • Vascular surgery
    • Pelvic surgeries, particularly for prostate cancer
    • Spinal cord injury
  • Behaviors:
    • Alcohol use
    • Illegal drug use
    • Anabolic steroid use
    • Heavy smoking
    • Interpersonal conflicts with a sexual partner
  • Medications:
    • Antihypertensives — for high blood pressure
    • Antihistamines — common as allergy medication
    • Antidepressants
    • Tranquilizers
    • Antipsychotics

Symptoms of Erectile Dysfunction

Symptoms include:

  • A less firm penis
  • Fewer erections

ED Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Expect questions about the frequency, quality, and duration of your erections. Your answers may help the diagnosis.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.

Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Testing

This test will monitor erections while you sleep. Involuntary erections during sleep are normal. If you have impotence but have normal erections during sleep, the problem may be emotional. If you have problems with an erection even while you sleep, the problem may be physical.


Doppler imaging is used to look at the blood flow. The test is done to check for blood flow in the penis. It will also look for blockage in the arteries or veins that supply the penis.

Treatment for Erectile Dysfunction

Treatment options include:

ED Medications

Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Phosphodiesterase inhibitors

Do not take these medications if you are also taking nitrates.

  • Oral testosterone, 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 impotence. Some of them may be unsafe.

Vacuum Devices

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

Vascular surgery is done to repair the blood vessel leaks. This has been shown to be effective in some cases.

Penile Implants

Penile Implant

penile implant smaller

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Implants may be placed in the penis. The implants can be inflated to simulate an erection.

Sex therapy may help impotence resulting from:

  • Ineffective sexual techniques
  • Relationship problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Preventing ED

To reduce your chance of becoming impotent:

  • Take medications to manage blood pressure, diabetes, or depression.
  • Ask your doctor about changing medications.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthful diet.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking is significantly associated with impotence in older men.
  • Talk to a therapist or counselor.


Call 434.243.3675.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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