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 impotence
Treatment choices for erectile dysfunction include:
- self-injection therapy;
- devices such as vacuum pumps;
- penile implant surgery;
- hormone therapy; and
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; and
- not taking illicit drugs.
These lifestyle recommendations can help improve impotence related to several causes and improve your health in general.
Medicines for erectile dysfunction
The 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 inhibitors
Side 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 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 therapy
Alprostadil 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 therapy
The 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 devices
Vacuum 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 impotence
Penile 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 dysfunction
In 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 impotence
In 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 dysfunction
There 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 impotence
Erectile 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: 12/12/2016
1. Male sexual function (published March 2014). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2016 Jul. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Nov 2016).
2. NHS Choices. Erectile dysfunction (updated 23 Sep 2014). http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Erectile-dysfunction/Pages/Introduction.aspx (accessed Nov 2016).
3. Andrology Australia. Erectile dysfunction (updated May 2014). https://www.andrologyaustralia.org/wp-content/uploads/Factsheet_ErectileDysfunction.pdf (accessed Nov 2016).
4. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Erectile dysfunction (updated Nov 2015). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/urologic-disease/erectile-dysfunction/Pages/facts.aspx (accessed Nov 2016).
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