Erectile Dysfunction

(ED; Impotence; Male Erectile Disorder)


Erectile dysfunction (ED) is trouble getting or keeping an erection of the penis that is firm enough for sex.

Causes    TOP

An erection happens when blood fills the penis. Some blood vessels opens wide to let blood flow into the penis. Other blood vessels shrink to keep the blood from leaving the penis. The change in the blood vessels is controlled by signals from nerves. ED may be caused by problems with any of these steps, such as:

Venous Leak

The blood vessels that keep the blood in the penis may be injured or have disease. Blood can leak out from the damaged areas during an erection. It may be difficult to get or keep an erection because the blood keeps leaking out.

Neurovascular Function

ED may be caused by:

  • Damage to nerves that control blood vessels
  • Damage to nerves that affect feeling in the penis
  • Damage or disease in blood vessels of the penis

Blood Vessels and Nerves of the Male Pelvis

Nerves, blood vessels, penis
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Psychological Factors    TOP

Emotional stress may change nerve signals from the brain. This is more likely a cause in men who suddenly develop ED.

Risk Factors    TOP

ED is more common in men who are 65 and older. It is also more common in men of Hispanic descent.

Factors that increase your chance of developing ED include:

Symptoms    TOP

Symptoms include:

  • A less firm penis
  • Fewer erections

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will ask about the quality and length of erections. Your answers may help the diagnosis.

Nocturnal penile tumescence testing will give the doctor more information. The test will check for erections while you sleep. If you have normal erections during sleep the cause may be emotional. If you have problems with an erection even while you sleep, the cause may be physical.

Other tests may be done to look for a cause:

  • Blood tests
  • Doppler imaging—to look at the blood flow in the penis.

Treatment    TOP

Treatment options include:


Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Phosphodiesterase inhibitors—do not take these medications if you are also taking nitrates
  • Testosterone supplements— note: these supplements are only helpful 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 ED. 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    TOP

Vascular surgery may be helpful for some. It is done to repair the blood vessel leaks.

Penile Implants    TOP

Implants may be placed in the penis. The implants can be inflated when needed to make an erection.

Penile Implant

penile implant smaller
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Sex Therapy    TOP

Sex therapy may help ED resulting from:

  • Unhelpful sexual techniques
  • Relationship problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Prevention    TOP

To reduce your chance of becoming impotent:

  • Follow treatment plans to manage blood pressure, diabetes, or depression.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthful diet.
  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit. Smoking is significantly associated with ED in older men.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Urology Care Foundation


Canadian Urological Association
Sex & U—The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada


Erectile dysfunction. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated February 29, 2016. Accessed September 7, 2017.
Erectile dysfunction. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated March 28, 2012. Accessed September 7, 2017.
Viera A, Shenenberger D, Green G. Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(4):1159-1166.
What is erectile dysfunction? Urology Care Foundation website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed September 7, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Adrienne Carmack, MD
Last Updated: 2/1/2018

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