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What Are Erection Problems?

What Are Erection Problems?

When men become sexually aroused, hormones, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels all work with one another to create an erection. Nerve signals, sent from the brain to the penis, stimulate muscles to relax. This, in turn, allows blood to flow to the tissue in the penis. Once the blood fills the penis and an erection is achieved, the blood vessels to the penis close off so that the erection is maintained. Following sexual arousal, the veins to the penis again open up, allowing the blood to leave.

At some point in a man’s life, he may have difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection. Erection problems occur when you can’t achieve or maintain an erection that’s firm enough to have sexual intercourse. For most men, this problem occurs occasionally and isn’t a serious issue. However, if you are unable to achieve an erection one-quarter of the time or more, you may have a health problem that requires medical attention. Erection problems are also known as:

  • erectile dysfunction (ED)
  • impotence
  • sexual dysfunction

What Are the Common Causes of Erection Problems?

The causes of erection problems can be physical, psychological, or a combination of the two. Physical causes of erection problems are more common in older men. They occur because of disorders that can affect the nerves and blood vessels responsible for causing an erection.

  • Physical causes of erectile problems include:
  • heart disease
  • atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • high cholesterol
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • multiple sclerosis
  • Peyronie’s disease (development of scar tissue in the penis, causing painful erections)
  • certain medications, including diuretics, beta blockers, muscle relaxers, or antidepressants
  • alcoholism or substance abuse
  • long-term tobacco use
  • trauma or injury to the spinal cord or genital region
  • congenital genitalia problems, such as hypospadias or epispadias
  • liver or kidney disease
  • treatment for prostate problems

Erection problems can also be due to psychological causes. Psychological issues can distract a man of any age from becoming aroused and include:

  • anxiety over not being able to achieve or maintain an erection
  • prolonged emotional distress related to economic, professional, or social issues
  • relationship conflicts
  • depression

When Should You Call Your Doctor?

If you develop erection problems that get worse over time, you should call your doctor. You should also call your doctor if erection problems develop or worsen after injury or prostate surgery. If you experience erection problems along with other symptoms, such as lower back pain or abdominal pain, make a doctor’s appointment.

You should also talk to your doctor if you believe a new medication is causing your erection problems. Don’t stop taking your medication before talking to your doctor.

How Can Erection Problems Be Treated?

Many of the physical causes of erection problems are related to lifestyle choices. You may want to consider the following lifestyle changes:

  • cutting down or stopping tobacco use
  • drinking less alcohol
  • getting plenty of rest
  • eating a healthy diet
  • exercising regularly
  • talking with your partner about sexual issues

If changes in your lifestyle don’t reduce your symptoms, you will need to contact your doctor to identify the cause of your erection problems. Your doctor will examine your penis and rectum as well as your nervous system function. Your doctor will also ask you about current health problems and when your symptoms began.

In an effort to accurately diagnose the cause of your erection problems, your doctor may also order tests that include:

  • complete blood count (CBC), which is a set of blood tests that checks for anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • hormone profile, which measures the levels of sex hormones (testosterone and prolactin)
  • nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT), which measures erectile functionality during sleep
  • duplex ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to take pictures of the body’s tissues
  • urinalysis, which measure protein and testosterone levels in the urine

Once your doctor determines the cause of your erection problem, they will provide appropriate treatment. Treatment can include addressing the underlying health problem and providing intervention to reduce erection problems.

Options for treating erection problems may include:

  • medications injected into the penis, such as prostaglandin E1, alprostadil, and papaverine
  • medication injected into the urethra, such as alprostadil
  • erectile dysfunction medications taken by mouth, such as sildenafil (Viagra)
  • surgery
  • vacuum devices

What Are the Complications of Erection Problems?

The complications associated with erection problems are significant and can impact your quality of life. If you experience erection problems, you may also experience:

  • stress or anxiety
  • embarrassment
  • low self-esteem
  • relationship problems
  • dissatisfaction with your sex life

How Can You Prevent Erection Problems?

To prevent erection problems, you should engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising regularly. If you have a chronic health condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, you should also work with your doctor to manage your symptoms. If you experience any mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, you should also seek treatment.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Darla Burke
Published on: Sep 26, 2015
Medically reviewed on: Jan 14, 2016: Mark R Laflamme, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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