What is Erectile Dysfunction Exactly?
Also known as ED, erectile dysfunction is defined as the inability to achieve or maintain an erection firm enough for sex but what exactly happens? Inside the penis there are two long, cylindrical chambers called the corpora cavernosa which contain myriad blood vessels and tissues as well as one major artery in each of the two.
When you become aroused, your brain sends chemical messages to the blood vessels in the penis, causing them to dilate or open, allowing blood to flow into the penis. As the pressure builds, the blood becomes trapped in the corpora cavernosa, keeping the penis erect. If blood flow to the penis is insufficient or if it fails to stay inside the penis, it can lead to erectile dysfunction.
What Causes Erectile Dysfunction?
The symptoms of erectile dysfunction include difficulty achieving an erection, trouble maintaining an erection, and a reduced interest in sex. Because male sexual arousal is a fairly complex process, it can sometimes be difficult to identify a specific cause. Arousal starts in the brain but it also involves the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels and can be impacted by hormones and emotions. If a problem develops with any of these things, erectile dysfunction could be the consequence.
Generally speaking, causes for erectile dysfunction can be divided into two categories: physical and psychological. Though each of these categories has its own set of contributing factors, many cases of erectile dysfunction involve causes from both categories. Here is an overview of each category:
Physical Causes of ED – The most common physical causes of erectile dysfunction are related to circulation and blood pressure. Heart disease, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure can all impact the amount of blood flowing to the penis. Diabetes contributes to ED by damaging your nerves and blood vessels.
Obesity and metabolic syndrome can cause changes in blood pressure, body composition, and cholesterol which may lead to ED. Other conditions that may contribute to erectile dysfunction include Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Peyronie’s disease, sleep disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Taking certain medications can also increase your risk for ED.
Psychological Causes of ED – Between 10% and 20% of ED cases have a psychological cause. Because arousal starts in the brain, psychological issues can be a significant contributing factor to erectile dysfunction. Mental health conditions like depression or anxiety can negatively impact your libido, making it more difficult for you to become aroused.
Stress can also be a major factor because it may interfere with your brain sending signals to allow extra blood to flow to the penis. In many cases, psychological issues develop into performance anxiety which in and of itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Though it can sometimes be difficult to pin down the specific cause for your erectile dysfunction, it is always worth the effort. Left untreated, ED can contribute to worsened stress and anxiety as well as low self-esteem, relationship problems, and impotence. Keep reading to learn about treatment options.
What ED Treatment Options Are Available?
In many cases, diagnosing erectile dysfunction requires little more than a physical exam and a review of your symptoms. If your doctor suspects that an underlying health problem may be at play, however, he may request additional testing. Once you’ve determined the cause for your ED, you and your doctor can decide on a form of treatment – here are some of the options:
- Erectile Dysfunction Drugs – Medications like sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), and vardenafil (Levitra) stimulate blood flow to the penis, enabling you to achieve an erection. These drugs need to be taken prior to engaging in sexual activity.
- Psychotherapy – For psychological causes of erectile dysfunction, psychotherapy can be beneficial. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular method because it helps address negative patterns of thought that can contribute to performance anxiety.
- Vacuum Constriction Devices – An alternative to oral medications, vacuum constriction devices can create an erection using vacuum pressure – once an erection develops, a constriction band is placed around the base of the penis to maintain the erection.
- Surgery – One of the more invasive treatments for erectile dysfunction, surgical options exist as well. Inflatable devices or malleable rods can be surgically implanted on either side of the penis to help achieve an erection.
- Lifestyle Changes – In cases where lifestyle factors such as obesity, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise play into erectile dysfunction, making health changes to your lifestyle may resolve the underlying conditions causing your symptoms.
When choosing an erectile dysfunction treatment, you should take your time. There are many options available and while none of them is perfect, some may be a better fit for you than others. Before you start a course of treatment, be sure to tell your doctor about any drugs or supplements you may be taking and keep an eye out for side effects.
What is Your Next Step?
Having learned a great deal more about erectile dysfunction including its risk factors and causes, you should be equipped to assess your own erectile function. If you have experienced erectile issues or you have some of the risk factors mentioned above, it may be worth making a trip to your doctor’s office. If you choose to seek help, give your doctor as much information as you can about your symptoms including their frequency and severity as well as the onset. With your doctor’s help, you can determine the best course of treatment to restore sexual function.
Erectile dysfunction may be an unpleasant condition that no one really wants to talk about, failing to acknowledge it won’t make the problem go away. Your best defense against health problems like this is to learn everything you can about it so you can tackle the problem at the root. If you’re ready to stop living in embarrassment about your sexual function, become an advocate for yourself and your own health and talk to your doctor.