Usually there will not be a specific treatment that will lead to the improvement of erectile dysfunction. However, there are treatments that will allow erections to happen and can be used to allow sexual activity to take place. There are three main types of treatments: non-invasive treatments such as tablet medicines and external devices (e.g. vacuum device); penile injections; or for men who have not had success with other treatments, surgery may be an option.
A testicular action was linked to circulating blood fractions – now understood to be a family of androgenic hormones – in the early work on castration and testicular transplantation in fowl by Arnold Adolph Berthold (1803–1861). Research on the action of testosterone received a brief boost in 1889, when the Harvard professor Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817–1894), then in Paris, self-injected subcutaneously a "rejuvenating elixir" consisting of an extract of dog and guinea pig testicle. He reported in The Lancet that his vigor and feeling of well-being were markedly restored but the effects were transient, and Brown-Séquard's hopes for the compound were dashed. Suffering the ridicule of his colleagues, he abandoned his work on the mechanisms and effects of androgens in human beings.
The development of an erection is a complex event involving integration of psychologic, neurologic, endocrine, vascular, and local anatomic systems. Positron emission tomography scanning studies have suggested that sexual arousal is activated in higher cortical centers that then stimulate the medial preoptic and paraventricular nuclei of the hypothalamus.5 These signals ultimately descend through a complex neural network involving the parasympathetic nervous system and eventually activate parasympathetic nerves in the sacral area (S2 to S4).
In addition to its role as a natural hormone, testosterone is used as a medication, for instance in the treatment of low testosterone levels in men and breast cancer in women. Since testosterone levels decrease as men age, testosterone is sometimes used in older men to counteract this deficiency. It is also used illicitly to enhance physique and performance, for instance in athletes.
An occasional problem achieving an erection is nothing to worry about. But failure to do so more than 50% of the time at any age may indicate a condition that needs treatment. About 40% of men in their 40s report at least occasional problems getting and maintaining erections. So do more than half (52%) of men aged 40 to 70, and about 70% of men in their 70s.
Transdermal preparations of testosterone utilize the fact that the skin readily absorbs steroid hormones. Initial transdermal preparations took the form of scrotal patches with testosterone loaded on to a membranous patch. Absorption from the scrotal skin was particularly good and physiological levels of testosterone with diurnal variation were reliably attained. The scrotal patches are now rarely used because they require regular shaving or clipping of scrotal hair and because they produce rather high levels of dihydrotestosterone compared to testosterone (Behre et al 1999). Subsequently, non-scrotal patches were developed but the absorptive capacity of non-scrotal skin is much lower, so these patches contain additional chemicals which enhance absorption. The non-scrotal skin patches produce physiological testosterone levels without supraphysiological dihydrotestosterone levels. Unfortunately, the patches produce a high rate of local skin reactions often leading to discontinuation (Parker and Armitage 1999). In the last few years, transdermal testosterone gel preparations have become available. These require daily application by patients and produce steady state physiological testosterone levels within a few days in most patients (Swerdloff et al 2000; Steidle et al 2003). The advantages compared with testosterone patches include invisibility, reduced skin irritation and the ability to adjust dosage, but concerns about transfer to women and children on close skin contact necessitate showering after application or coverage with clothes.