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What is Erectile Dysfunction?

  • Tuesday 13 April 2021
  • 5 minute(s) read

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Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a common condition for millions of men across the United States. 1 ED is a sensitive topic that many men may not want to discuss, but there is no shame in the condition, and erectile dysfunction treatment is available. Read on to learn more about the causes and symptoms of ED.

Understanding the Male Reproductive System

Before erectile dysfunction is addressed, it is essential to understand how the male reproductive system functions. The penis, scrotum, testes, prostate, vas deferens, and seminal vesicles make up the male reproductive system components. These parts have to work in tandem for the proper functioning of the urinary and reproductive systems. When one part begins to malfunction, several conditions occur, including erectile dysfunction.

a diagram of the male reproductive system

When sexual stimulation is present, the brain and nerve endings work together to send nerve signals to the penis to relax. Once these nerve signals are sent, arteries and veins open up, increasing blood flow to the penis. This blood flow is locked in by supporting tissues and membranes, allowing a man to create and hold an erection. The testicles also release testosterone (a male sex hormone) during this time, determining when an erection happens and how firm it is. 1 Once the stimulation is over or orgasm occurs, an erection subsides when the penis muscles tighten up and stop blood from flowing into the penis.   

What is ED? What Causes It?

Disruptions in the process detailed above can occur for several reasons. ED is defined by the inability to attain or maintain an erection long enough to have sexual intercourse. There is no specific cause of erectile dysfunction, and many men may experience a combination of several erectile dysfunction risk factors. Common causes of ED include:

  • Nerve dysfunction: When the nervous system is not communicating properly with the male reproductive system, ED can occur and lead to less feeling in the penis.
  • Diabetes: Over time, type 2 diabetes can damage the body’s nerves and blood vessels, leading to ED. Poor long-term blood sugar control and erectile dysfunction often go hand in hand.
  • Atherosclerosis: Atherosclerosis is a narrowing or clogging of the blood vessels caused by plaque buildup. ED is usually one of the first signs of atherosclerosis.
  • Medications: Taking certain medications, like antidepressants, can increase your risk of ED.
  • Age: Men at any age can develop ED, but it is more common in men over 40. 2

an older couple walking together

Symptoms of ED

Symptoms of erectile dysfunction depend on the cause of erectile dysfunction. You may have ED if you have experienced one of the following symptoms for three months or more:

  • Reduced interest in sex
  • Difficulty maintaining an erection during sexual activities
  • Trouble getting an erection
  • Premature ejaculation
  • Delayed ejaculation
  • Inability to achieve orgasm 3

Erectile Dysfunction Tests

Many men feel nervous about bringing up erectile dysfunction with their doctor, but you are not alone. Over 600,000 men are diagnosed with erectile dysfunction every single year in the United States. 4 Testing for ED typically involves various steps to make sure your symptoms are not due to another condition in the body. To make the most of your appointment, it is often helpful to write down a detailed list of your symptoms and when they occur. Your doctor will typically start with a physical exam, listen to your heart and lungs, and check your blood pressure. They may also perform a rectal exam to check your prostate. In some cases, an enlarged prostate can cause ED. 

After the physical exam, your doctor may also ask you questions like:

  • How’s your current relationship?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Are you having problems with feeling sexual desire or reaching orgasm?
  • How long have you been experiencing ED?

These questions help your doctor better understand the cause of your erectile dysfunction and determine the need for additional tests. Your doctor may call for the following tests:

  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound can examine the vessels in the penis and see if there is any problem with blood flow.
  • Nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) test: This test involves wearing a device on the thigh that evaluates the quality of nocturnal erections. Your doctor will examine the data after a period of time to determine if your erections are normal when you are asleep.
  • Injection test: Your doctor may inject a medication into the penis to stimulate an erection. Your doctor will evaluate the firmness and longevity of this erection.
  • Blood & Urine tests: These tests check for diabetes, thyroid issues, and low testosterone levels that may be related to ED. 3

a man standing in between two beds

Medications and Treatment Options

Prescription drugs: There are many available ED meds online like Viagra and Cialis. These drugs work similarly by relaxing the arteries and muscles in the penis, allowing more blood to reach the penis. This only occurs when the body is aroused.

Talk therapy: For many men, ED is related to psychological factors. If you suffer from stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression, you may be more likely to experience erectile dysfunction. Talk therapy may help your feelings around sex and address any major stress or anxiety factors present in your life.

Vacuum pumps: You may be prescribed a vacuum pump to stimulate an erection. There are several different styles of vacuum pumps, but most involve placing a plastic tube over the penis. You then use a handheld pump to create a vacuum that draws the air out of the tube and subsequently draws blood into the penis. An elastic ring at the base of the penis stays in place after the air is drawn out, maintaining an erection and preventing blood from leaving the penis. 

Kegel exercises: Kegel exercises can strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. Talk to your doctor about how to perform Kegel exercises and how to identify your pelvic floor muscles. Studies have found that men who performed pelvic floor exercises regularly for three months had a greater penile function than those who did not perform the exercises.

Lifestyle changes: If you have a sedentary lifestyle, you may be more likely to experience ED. Moderate exercise can increase blood flow to the penis and improve your ED symptoms. Changing up your diet and limiting your consumption of red meat and processed food can also help your condition. 5 Visit our ED blog to learn how lifestyle changes can affect your sexual health. 

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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