If you’ve found this page, odds are you or someone you know is curious about erectile dysfunction (ED), along with its causes and symptoms. That’s why we want to open this overview of ED by acknowledging that knowledge is power. We know that ED can take an emotional toll and hurt one’s sexual confidence. But by arming yourself with a deeper understanding of ED, you’re setting yourself up for an informed and successful conversation with your healthcare provider. Ultimately, remember that erectile dysfunction is very treatable and doesn’t make you any less of a man.
What Is Erectile Dysfunction?
From TV to online articles, you’ve probably heard a lot about ED. But what exactly is it? The Cleveland Clinic defines erectile dysfunction as “the inability to get and keep an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse.” This definition may be surprising for some people since the media tends to portray ED as the inability to get an erection at all. The truth is that ED symptoms can vary from person to person, and the condition can affect both younger and older men. ED is also more common than some may think. In fact, a 2018 review by the National Library of Medicine estimated that about one-third of men are impacted by ED at some point in their lives. Needless to say, that’s a lot of guys.
Time to dive a little deeper into the difference between occasional erectile issues and erectile dysfunction. Let’s first acknowledge that every guy experiences some trouble getting or maintaining an erection from time to time. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic estimates that experiencing erectile issues in up to 20% of sexual encounters can be perfectly normal, and that factors including alcohol consumption and stress can get in the way of achieving an erection. However, if you’re having trouble getting or maintaining an erection at least 50% of the time, then you’re likely experiencing a medical issue that would require treatment.
What Causes Erectile Dysfunction?
When you become aroused, blood fills up two chambers in your penis called the corpora cavernosa. Erectile dysfunction happens when the blood cannot fill these chambers enough to create a sustained erection for sex. There are a wide variety of conditions that can cause ED, so keep in mind that the following causes don’t make up an exhaustive list. Instead, we’ll walk through a few of the most common causes of erectile dysfunction.
- Vascular Disease: Certain conditions (such as atherosclerosis) which affect circulation, veins, and arteries can cause ED.
- Certain Medications: Medications including antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and anti-seizure medications (just to name a few) list ED as a potential side effect.
- Neurological Disorders: Conditions that affect the nerves including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's can cause ED.
- Certain Injuries: Spinal cord injuries, stroke, or other issues that result in nerve damage can cause ED.
While ED can affect men at varying points in their lives, some risk factors for erectile dysfunction are common across the board. Sexual health and sexual dysfunction stem from a complex web of health and lifestyle factors. So keep these common risk factors in mind as you assess your own symptoms and work with your doctor to find the best treatment for you.
- Mental Health: Issues such as anxiety, depression, and relationship troubles can contribute to sexual dysfunction. In fact, a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found a strong correlation between depression and ED.
- Diabetes: Since nerve damage can cause ED, men with nerve damage caused by diabetes are at a greater risk for developing ED.
- Age: Even though erectile dysfunction can affect older and younger men, increased age is a prevalent risk factor for ED. Boston University School of Medicine notes that a man’s risk of ED at age 40 is 22%, and rises to 49% by the age of 70.
- Weight: Weight can be a significant risk factor for ED. Research in the National Library of Medicine mentions that up to 79% of people with ED have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more.
Signs & Symptoms
It’s important to understand how ED symptoms can manifest so that you can monitor yourself and stay in the know about your sexual health. Issues with getting an erection, or maintaining one, are the telltale signs of ED. Many men also experienced lowered sexual desire as another symptom of erectile dysfunction.
As we mentioned, keep the frequency of any erectile issues you experience in mind. Remember that it’s normal to have issues getting or maintaining an erection about 20% of the time. If you experience symptoms during 50% of your sexual encounters or more, it’s likely time to meet with your doctor to explore any medical conditions or underlying causes.
If the signs and symptoms we’ve discussed align with any issues you’re experiencing, it’s important to know that there are many effective treatments out there for ED. Just as the causes of ED can vary, effective treatment can often involve multiple methods to create a holistic, personalized care plan. Here are just a few of the common treatments available for erectile dysfunction.
- Medications: Sildenafil (Viagra) and tadalafil (Cialis) are some of the medications that aid blood flow to the penis, and are often prescribed to improve sexual dysfunction caused by ED.
- Intracavernosal Injection Therapy: This therapy involves injecting medicines (such as prostaglandin E1 and papaverine) into the side of the penis. These medicines allow blood to flow more easily into the penis.
- Talk Therapy: Many men who experience ED along with depression or anxiety incorporate talk therapy into their treatment plan.
- Hormones: Since low hormone levels can contribute to ED, some men are prescribed hormone replacement to alleviate ED symptoms.
Despite the pervasive stigma around men’s performance in the bedroom, we encourage you to put your health and wellness first. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a medical professional for help if ED symptoms are affecting your sexual or mental health. Remember that ED is very treatable, and many men lead sexually fulfilling lives during and post-treatment. So, now that you’re fully equipped with a better understanding of ED, you’re that much more prepared to monitor your own sexual health.