However, testosterone is only one of many factors that aid in adequate erections. Research is inconclusive regarding the role of testosterone replacement in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. In a review of studies that looked at the benefit of testosterone in men with erection difficulties, nearly half showed no improvement with testosterone treatment. Many times, other health problems play a role in erectile difficulties. These can include:
These oral medications reversibly inhibit penile-specific PDE5 and enhance the nitric oxide–cGMP pathways of cavernous smooth muscle relaxation; that is, all prevent the breakdown of cGMP by PDE5. It is important to emphasize to patients that these drugs augment the body’s natural erectile mechanisms, therefore the neural and psychoemotional stimuli typically needed for arousal still need to be activated for the drugs to be efficacious.
Penile erection is managed by two mechanisms: the reflex erection, which is achieved by directly touching the penile shaft, and the psychogenic erection, which is achieved by erotic or emotional stimuli. The former uses the peripheral nerves and the lower parts of the spinal cord, whereas the latter uses the limbic system of the brain. In both cases, an intact neural system is required for a successful and complete erection. Stimulation of the penile shaft by the nervous system leads to the secretion of nitric oxide (NO), which causes the relaxation of smooth muscles of corpora cavernosa (the main erectile tissue of penis), and subsequently penile erection. Additionally, adequate levels of testosterone (produced by the testes) and an intact pituitary gland are required for the development of a healthy erectile system. As can be understood from the mechanisms of a normal erection, impotence may develop due to hormonal deficiency, disorders of the neural system, lack of adequate penile blood supply or psychological problems. Spinal cord injury causes sexual dysfunction including ED. Restriction of blood flow can arise from impaired endothelial function due to the usual causes associated with coronary artery disease, but can also be caused by prolonged exposure to bright light.
Cross-sectional studies have not shown raised testosterone levels at the time of diagnosis of prostate cancer, and in fact, low testosterone at the time of diagnosis has been linked with more locally aggressive and malignant tumors (Massengill et al 2003; Imamoto et al 2005; Isom-Batz et al 2005). This may reflect loss of hormone related control of the tumor or the effect of a more aggressive tumor in decreasing testosterone levels. One study found that 14% of hypogonadal men, with normal digital rectal examination and PSA levels, had histological prostate cancer on biopsy. It is possible that low androgen levels masked the usual evidence of prostate cancer in this population (Morgentaler et al 1996). Most longitudinal studies have not shown a correlation between testosterone levels and the future development of prostate cancer (Carter et al 1995; Heikkila et al 1999; Stattin et al 2004) but a recent study did find a positive association (Parsons et al 2005). Interpretation of such data requires care, as the presentation of prostate cancer could be altered or delayed in patients with lower testosterone levels.
An international consensus document was recently published and provides guidance on the diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of late-onset hypogonadism (LOH) in men. The diagnosis of LOH requires biochemical and clinical components. Controversy in defining the clinical syndrome continues due to the high prevalence of hypogonadal symptoms in the aging male population and the non-specific nature of these symptoms. Further controversy surrounds setting a lower limit of normal testosterone, the limitations of the commonly available total testosterone result in assessing some patients and the unavailability of reliable measures of bioavailable or free testosterone for general clinical use. As with any clinical intervention testosterone treatment should be judged on a balance of risk versus benefit. The traditional benefits of testosterone on sexual function, mood, strength and quality of life remain the primary goals of treatment but possible beneficial effects on other parameters such as bone density, obesity, insulin resistance and angina are emerging and will be reviewed. Potential concerns regarding the effects of testosterone on prostate disease, aggression and polycythaemia will also be addressed. The options available for treatment have increased in recent years with the availability of a number of testosterone preparations which can reliably produce physiological serum concentrations.
The most common treatment for erectile dysfunction is drugs known as phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE-5) inhibitors. These include tadalafil (Cialis), vardenafil (Levitra), and sildenafil citrate (Viagra). These are effective for about 75% of men with erectile dysfunction. They are tablets that are taken around an hour before sex, and last between 4 and 36 hours. Sexual stimulation is required before an erection will occur. The PDE-5 inhibitors cause dilation of blood vessels in the penis to allow erection to occur, and help it to stay rigid. Men using nitrate medication (e.g. GTN spray or sublingual tablets for angina) should not use PDE-5 inhibitors.
Several pathways have been described to explain how information travels from the hypothalamus to the sacral autonomic centers. One pathway travels from the dorsomedial hypothalamus through the dorsal and central gray matter, descends to the locus ceruleus, and projects ventrally in the mesencephalic reticular formation. Input from the brain is conveyed through the dorsal spinal columns to the thoracolumbar and sacral autonomic nuclei.
Overall, few patients have a compelling contraindication to testosterone treatment. The majority of men with late onset hypogonadism can be safely treated with testosterone but all will require monitoring of prostate parameters HDL cholesterol, hematocrit and psychological state. It is also wise to monitor symptoms of sleep apnea. Other specific concerns may be raised by the mode of delivery such as local side effects from transdermal testosterone.
Some self-administered measures may be useful in the primary care setting to screen for and evaluate the degree of ED.12 The most commonly used instrument is the International Index of Erectile Function, a 15-item questionnaire that has been validated in many populations and is considered the gold standard to evaluate patients for ED.13 The Sexual Health Inventory for Men is a short-form, 5-item questionnaire developed to monitor treatment progress.12 It is important to recognize that short-form questionnaire does not evaluate specific areas of the sexual cycle, such as sexual desire, ejaculation, and orgasm; however, it may be useful in discussing ED with patients and evaluating treatment results over time.
Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, associate professor of pharmacology and director of the industry watchdog group PharmedOut.org at Georgetown University School of Medicine, calls this kind of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising "evil." She likened the efforts to sell TRT to earlier campaigns to push hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women. "They stole the playbook," she said. "This hormone is being thrown around like sugar water."