Impotence, also known as erectile dysfunction or ED, is a very common problem, affecting up to half of 40-70 year old men in Australia.Treatment techniques for impotence have varied through the years, from external steel mechanical attachments, to static electricity attached to the penis and testicles, to simple aphrodisiacs such as oysters. Until as recently as 1970, erectile failure was almost always seen as being due to psychological causes and was usually treated with psychotherapy.Since then, the medical causes contributing to impotence have been recognised and the treatment of impotence has been revolutionised, providing a range of options which are far more acceptable and very much more successful.Treatment options for impotenceTreatment choices for erectile dysfunction include:medicines;self-injection therapy;devices such as vacuum pumps;penile implant surgery;hormone therapy; andcounselling.If you have erectile dysfunction, the treatment your doctor recommends will depend on the severity of symptoms and the underlying cause of your impotence.Your doctor will want to check that any conditions that could be contributing to or causing erectile dysfunction are being treated.Your doctor may also suggest that you make some lifestyle adjustments, such as:increasing the amount of physical activity you get;losing weight if you are overweight;reducing the amount of alcohol you drink;quitting smoking; andnot taking illicit drugs.These lifestyle recommendations can help improve impotence related to several causes and improve your health in general.Medicines for erectile dysfunctionThe first tablet available for erectile dysfunction, sildenafil (brand name Viagra), has been largely responsible for helping to bring the topic of erectile dysfunction out into the open. Similar medications — tadalafil (Cialis) and vardenafil ( Levitra) — are also available. These medicines all work in a similar way, although there is some difference in how long their effect lasts. Sildenafil, tadalafil and vardenafil belong to a group of medicines called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors because they block the PDE5 enzyme.How do oral medicines help treat erectile dysfunction?PDE5 inhibitors help in the process of getting and keeping an erection by working on chemicals in the body that are involved in erections. These medicines work by stopping PDE5 from breaking down an erection-producing chemical called cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP). cGMP helps to relax the smooth muscle cells in the penis's erectile tissue, allowing more blood to flow into the penis to cause an erection. When PDE5 is temporarily blocked by these medicines, it can’t break down the erection producing cGMP, so an erection can be achieved and maintained. PDE5 inhibitors can be used in the treatment of erectile dysfunction that is due to physical or psychological causes.Medications such as Viagra, Cialis and Levitra will work only if you are sexually stimulated. They are not aphrodisiacs and won’t increase your sex drive.Side effects of PDE5 inhibitorsSide effects of these medicines can include headaches, flushes, blocked nose, indigestion and dizziness.In rare situations, sildenafil and vardenafil can cause a distortion of vision or change in colour vision.Tadalafil has been associated with back pain.Who can take medicines for impotence?PDE5 inhibitors cannot be taken by all men, so your doctor will need to evaluate your suitability before prescribing either of these medications.Men taking nitrates (often used to treat angina) should never take phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors. PDE5 inhibitors should also not be taken with some medicines used to treat high blood pressure.PDE5 inhibitors may also not be suitable for men with certain heart conditions or low blood pressure. Check with your doctor to find out if this type of medication may be suitable for you.Self-injection therapySelf-injection therapy delivers a medicine called alprostadil (brand name Caverject), also known as prostaglandin E-1, to the erectile tissue of the penis. Prostaglandin E-1 occurs naturally in the body and helps increase the blood flow to the penis to cause an erection. Unlike the PDE5 inhibitors, alprostadil will cause an erection whether the penis is stimulated or not.Self-injection therapy is usually recommended if PDE5 inhibitor medicines are not suitable or have not been effective in the treatment of erectile dysfunction.How to use self-injection therapyAlprostadil is injected into either of the 2 cigar-shaped chambers of the penis known as the corpora cavernosa, which run along the length of the penis, one on either side. Your doctor or urologist (specialist in problems with male reproductive organs and the urinary tract) will give you instructions on how to do this.Alprostadil should produce an erection in 5 to 20 minutes and, generally, the erection will last for 30 to 60 minutes.You should not use alprostadil more than once in a 24-hour period, and you should use it no more than 3 times a week.Don’t try to use more than the recommended dose of alprostadil, as your erection may last longer than is medically safe.Who can use self-injection therapy?You should ask your doctor if alprostadil is suitable for you. Your doctor will also be able to tell you how much alprostadil to use, depending on your condition and whether or not you are taking any other medications, and also how to use alprostadil properly.People with certain illnesses, such as leukaemia and sickle cell anaemia, or who have a penile implant or Peyronie’s disease, where the penis may be scarred and produces erections that are not straight, should not use alprostadil.Men for whom sexual activity is not advised should not use alprostadil.Side effects of injection therapyThe most common side effects of alprostadil include pain in the penis or bruising in the penis at the site of injection. Fibrosis (the development of fibrous tissue) can also develop following injections into the penis.The most serious side effect is priapism (a persistent erection), which is a medical emergency. Your doctor will inform you of what to do if you have an erection that persists for 2 hours or more. It is very important that you follow your doctor’s instructions and inform them that you have experienced this side effect.Vacuum erection devicesVacuum erection devices work by creating a vacuum, which increases blood flow to the penis, producing an erection.The penis is lubricated and placed inside a hollow plastic chamber. Air is pumped out of the chamber, either manually or by a battery powered pump. This creates a vacuum which pulls blood into the penis to cause an erection. This takes about 5 minutes.Once the penis is erect, the man fits a rubber ring around the base of his penis to keep the blood trapped inside the penis when the cylinder is removed. After intercourse, the ring can be removed to return the penis to a limp state.Vacuum erection devices avoid surgery and can be used as often as required. However, they may be difficult to use, and many men and their partners feel they take much of the pleasure and spontaneity away from sexual activities. Vacuum pumps are not suitable for men who have problems with blood clotting, or blood disorders such as leukaemia.Penile implant surgery for impotencePenile implant surgery is not a common procedure but in some cases it may be the most appropriate treatment for erectile dysfunction.The procedure involves placing an implant inside the penis, along its length, so that it can become erect. The implant may be a pair of semi-rigid rods or a pair of inflatable cylinders.The inflatable implants allow the penis to look and feel limp (flaccid) or erect, depending on how much the cylinders are inflated. The cylinders in an inflatable implant are hollow, and the man gets an erection by squeezing a pump located in his scrotum to fill the cylinders with salt water (saline) stored in a reservoir implanted in his lower abdomen. A release valve drains the saline out of the cylinders and back into the reservoir.With the semi-rigid, malleable rod type of implant, the rods run along the length of the penis and can be bent upwards to produce an erect penis, or downwards when an erect penis is not required.Like all surgery, there are some risks, such as infection or bleeding. If you have had surgery and have severe pain, fever, swelling or excessive bleeding, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.Vascular surgery for erectile dysfunctionIn cases where a man’s anatomy prevents blood flow into or out of the penis, vascular surgery may be an option. This treatment option is rarely recommended, and is usually only successful in younger men.If there is a blockage that prevents blood from flowing into the penis, a doctor may recommend an operation that bypasses the blocked blood vessels, using a length of vein or manufactured tubing, to allow more blood to flow into the penis and help produce an erection.If the problem is that blood leaks back out of the penis, this can be corrected by tying off the major veins that drain the penis, a procedure known as venous ligation.Hormone treatments for impotenceIn a small number of men, blood tests may show abnormally low levels of testosterone, the male sex hormone. In such cases your doctor might prescribe a course of testosterone injections or a testosterone implant. The supplements can help boost sex drive as well as increasing the ability to have erections. Testosterone gel or patches, applied daily to the skin, are another option.Complementary medicines for erectile dysfunctionThere is a lack of scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of complementary therapies for the treatment of impotence.Always check with your doctor before taking any herbal medicines or supplements for impotence. These formulations may contain ingredients that can interact with other medicines or cause dangerous side effects.Counselling for men with impotenceErectile dysfunction often has physical causes, but sometimes there is a psychological basis for erection problems. Often this is a form of performance anxiety. A man may have had an episode of erectile dysfunction due to some passing cause like fatigue, stress, relationship difficulty or intoxication. This may have led to embarrassment or a feeling of failure. Even if the physical cause does not remain, future attempts to have sex may trigger memories of this embarrassment and acute anxiety that it will happen again. This anxiety itself is capable of causing erectile dysfunction, and so a man may get trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety and erectile dysfunction. In these instances, seeing a GP, counsellor or psychologist can be very helpful.Stress, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, in fact, almost all significant emotional problems, can have a major effect on sexuality. So do many chronic physical illnesses, even if they don't directly affect genital function. Counsellors and psychologists can assist with these and a wide range of other sexual and relationship problems and can also help female partners suffering from sexual problems. They are particularly skilled in helping patients to overcome guilt or anxiety relating to sexual abuse, and in helping couples to sort out relationship difficulties. Simple problems can be dealt with in a few visits, but more complex problems may require several months or even years of therapy.Your doctor may be able to recommend a psychologist or counsellor who specialises in sexual and relationship problems. Last Reviewed: 12 December 2016
It is common for a healthy older man to still want sex and be able to have sex within appropriate limitations. Understanding what is normal in older age is important to avoid frustration and concern. Older men and their partners often value being able to continue sexual activity and there is no age where the man is ‘too old’ to think about getting help with his erection or other sexual problems.
A related issue is the potential use of testosterone as a coronary vasodilator and anti-anginal agent. Testosterone has been shown to act as a vasodilator of coronary arteries at physiological concentrations during angiography (Webb, McNeill et al 1999). Furthermore men given a testosterone injection prior to exercise testing showed improved performance, as assessed by ST changes compared to placebo (Rosano et al 1999; Webb, Adamson et al 1999). Administration of one to three months of testosterone treatment has also been shown to improve symptoms of angina and exercise test performance (Wu and Weng 1993; English et al 2000; Malkin, Pugh, Morris et al 2004). Longer term studies are underway. It is thought that testosterone improves angina due its vasodilatory action, which occurs independently of the androgen receptor, via blockade of L-type calcium channels at the cell membrane of the vascular smooth muscle in an action similar to the dihydropyridine calcium-channel blockers such as nifedipine (Hall et al 2006).
Stress is your body responding to your environment. And it’s a good thing—in limited doses. When you get stressed out your body makes chemicals like adrenaline that make you stronger, faster, fitter, and even able to think more clearly. Most people call this reaction the “fight-or-flight” response, and it’s a life-saver in dangerous situations. In a very real sense, adrenaline makes you a part-time superhero. The problems happen when your body deals with constant stress.
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.
Both ED and low testosterone (hypogonadism) increase with age. The incidence of the latter is 40% in men aged 45 years and older.  Testosterone is known to be important in mood, cognition, vitality, bone health, and muscle and fat composition. It also plays a key role in sexual dysfunction (eg, low libido, poor erection quality, ejaculatory or orgasmic dysfunction, reduced spontaneous erections, or reduced sexual activity). 
Once a complete sexual and medical history has been completed, appropriate laboratory studies should be conducted. In the initial evaluation of ED, sophisticated laboratory testing is rarely necessary. For example, serum testosterone (and sometimes prolactin) is typically only useful when the patient demonstrates hypogonadal features or testicular atrophy, or when clinical history is suggestive. Additional hormonal evaluation may include thyroid stimulating hormone in those with a clinical suspicion of hypothyroidism or appropriate diabetes screening in those presenting with a concern for impaired glucose metabolism. If the patient has not been evaluated with a lipid panel and hyperlipidemia is suspected, measurement and appropriate referral to internal medicine or cardiology is recommended. In most cases, a tentative diagnosis can be established with a complete sexual and medical history, physical examination, and limited or no laboratory testing.
Erections occur in response to tactile, olfactory, and visual stimuli. The ability to achieve and maintain a full erection depends not only on the penile portion of the process but also on the status of the peripheral nerves, the integrity of the vascular supply, and biochemical events within the corpora. The autonomic nervous system is involved in erection, orgasm, and tumescence. The parasympathetic nervous system is primarily involved in sustaining and maintaining an erection, which is derived from S2-S4 nerve roots.
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:
Performance anxiety can be another cause of impotence. If a person wasn’t able to achieve an erection in the past, he may fear he won’t be able to achieve an erection in the future. A person may also find he can’t achieve an erection with a certain partner. Someone with ED related to performance anxiety may be able to have full erections when masturbating or when sleeping, yet he isn’t able to maintain an erection during intercourse.
ED can also occur among younger men. A 2013 study found that one in four men seeking their first treatment for ED were under the age of 40. The researchers found a stronger correlation between smoking and illicit drug use and ED in men under 40 than among older men. That suggests that lifestyle choices may be a main contributing factor for ED in younger men.
Replacement therapy may produce desired results, such as greater muscle mass and a stronger sex drive. However, the treatment does carry some side effects. Oily skin and fluid retention are common. The testicles may also shrink, and sperm production could decrease significantly. Some studies have found no greater risk of prostate cancer with testosterone replacement therapy, but it continues to be a topic of ongoing research.
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For people who are worried about low or high testosterone, a doctor may perform a blood test to measure the amount of the hormone in the patient's blood. When doctors find low-T, they may prescribe testosterone therapy, in which the patient takes an artificial version of the hormone. This is available in the following forms: a gel to be applied to the upper arms, shoulders or abdomen daily; a skin patch put on the body or scrotum twice a day; a solution applied to the armpit; injections every two or three weeks; a patch put on the gums twice a day; or implants that last four to six months.
Some of these signs and symptoms can be caused by various underlying factors, including medication side effects, obstructive sleep apnea, thyroid problems, diabetes and depression. It's also possible that these conditions may be the cause of low testosterone levels, and treatment of these problems may cause testosterone levels to rise. A blood test is the only way to diagnose a low testosterone level.
There have been case reports of development of prostate cancer in patients during treatment with testosterone, including one case series of twenty patients (Gaylis et al 2005). It is not known whether this reflects an increase in incidence, as prostate cancer is very common and because the monitoring for cancer in patients treated with testosterone is greater. Randomized controlled trials of testosterone treatment have found a low incidence of prostate cancer and they do not provide evidence of a link between testosterone treatment and the development of prostate cancer (Rhoden and Morgentaler 2004). More large scale clinical trials of longer durations of testosterone replacement are required to confirm that testosterone treatment does not cause prostate cancer. Overall, it is not known whether testosterone treatment of aging males with hypogonadism increases the risk of prostate cancer, but monitoring for the condition is clearly vital. This should take the form of PSA blood test and rectal examination every three months for the first year of treatment and yearly thereafter (Nieschlag et al 2005). Age adjusted PSA reference ranges should be used to identify men who require further assessment. The concept of PSA velocity is also important and refers to the rate of increase in PSA per year. Patients with abnormal rectal examination suggestive of prostate cancer, PSA above the age specific reference range or a PSA velocity greater than 0.75 ng/ml/yr should be referred to a urologist for consideration of prostate biopsy.
It appears that testosterone has NOS-independent pathways as well. In one study, castrated rats were implanted with testosterone pellets and then divided into a group that received an NOS inhibitor (L-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester [L-NAME]) and a control group that received no enzyme.  The castrated rats that were given testosterone pellets and L-NAME still had partial erections, a result suggesting the presence of a pathway independent of NOS activity.
Two of the immediate metabolites of testosterone, 5α-DHT and estradiol, are biologically important and can be formed both in the liver and in extrahepatic tissues. Approximately 5 to 7% of testosterone is converted by 5α-reductase into 5α-DHT, with circulating levels of 5α-DHT about 10% of those of testosterone, and approximately 0.3% of testosterone is converted into estradiol by aromatase. 5α-Reductase is highly expressed in the male reproductive organs (including the prostate gland, seminal vesicles, and epididymides), skin, hair follicles, and brain and aromatase is highly expressed in adipose tissue, bone, and the brain. As much as 90% of testosterone is converted into 5α-DHT in so-called androgenic tissues with high 5α-reductase expression, and due to the several-fold greater potency of 5α-DHT as an AR agonist relative to testosterone, it has been estimated that the effects of testosterone are potentiated 2- to 3-fold in such tissues.
The main surgical treatment of ED involves insertion of a penile implant (also called penile prostheses). Because penile vascular surgery is not recommended for aging males who have failed oral PDE5 inhibitors, ICI or IU therapies, implants are the next step for these patients. Although placement of a penile implant is a surgery which carries risks, they have the highest rates of success and satisfaction among ED treatment options.
Another effect that can limit treatment is polycythemia, which occurs due to various stimulatory effects of testosterone on erythropoiesis (Zitzmann and Nieschlag 2004). Polycythemia is known to produce increased rates of cerebral ischemia and there have been reports of stroke during testosterone induced polycythaemia (Krauss et al 1991). It is necessary to monitor hematocrit during testosterone treatment, and hematocrit greater than 50% should prompt either a reduction of dose if testosterone levels are high or high-normal, or cessation of treatment if levels are low-normal. On the other hand, late onset hypogonadism frequently results in anemia which will then normalize during physiological testosterone replacement.
Organic ED involves abnormalities the penile arteries, veins, or both and is the most common cause of ED, especially in older men. When the problem is arterial, it is usually caused by arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, although trauma to the arteries may be the cause. The controllable risk factors for arteriosclerosis--being overweight, lack of exercise, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and cigarette smoking--can cause erectile failure often before progressing to affect the heart.
The changes in average serum testosterone levels with aging mean that the proportion of men fulfilling a biochemically defined diagnosis of hypogonadism increases with aging. Twenty percent of men aged over 60 have total testosterone levels below the normal range and the figure rises to 50% in those aged over 80. The figures concerning free testosterone are even higher as would be expected in view of the concurrent decrease in SHBG levels (Harman et al 2001).
In the hepatic 17-ketosteroid pathway of testosterone metabolism, testosterone is converted in the liver by 5α-reductase and 5β-reductase into 5α-DHT and the inactive 5β-DHT, respectively. Then, 5α-DHT and 5β-DHT are converted by 3α-HSD into 3α-androstanediol and 3α-etiocholanediol, respectively. Subsequently, 3α-androstanediol and 3α-etiocholanediol are converted by 17β-HSD into androsterone and etiocholanolone, which is followed by their conjugation and excretion. 3β-Androstanediol and 3β-etiocholanediol can also be formed in this pathway when 5α-DHT and 5β-DHT are acted upon by 3β-HSD instead of 3α-HSD, respectively, and they can then be transformed into epiandrosterone and epietiocholanolone, respectively. A small portion of approximately 3% of testosterone is reversibly converted in the liver into androstenedione by 17β-HSD.
Testosterone is used as a medication for the treatment of males with too little or no natural testosterone production, certain forms of breast cancer, and gender dysphoria in transgender men. This is known as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), which maintains serum testosterone levels in the normal range. Decline of testosterone production with age has led to interest in androgen replacement therapy. It is unclear if the use of testosterone for low levels due to aging is beneficial or harmful.