Published on March 15th, 2016

Erectile Dysfunction – How Does It Happen?

Sexual health is an important part of overall physical and emotional well-being. Having erectile dysfunction or ED can impact a man’s entire life. This article will walk you through what happens in the body when you have ED, some of the likely causes and what you can do about it.

Erectile dysfunction is simply the persistent inability to achieve or maintain an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse. It sounds simple enough, but ED is often often associated with depression, loss of self-confidence and intimacy.  This can lead to a reduced quality of life1.

What Caused my ED?

What happens when a man has erectile dysfunction?  In a normal erection, the process starts in the brain.  When a man becomes aroused, the nerves surrounding his penis become active.  This causes the muscles around his arteries to relax and allow more blood to flow into the penis.  An erection occurs when blood fills the two chambers in the penis known as the corpora cavernosa. This filling causes the penis to expand and stiffen54.

Anything that blocks the nerves from becoming active or restricts blood flow to the penis can result in erections that are too soft or too brief for sexual intercourse. It may even prevent a man from achieving erections altogether54. There are many degrees of ED55. Men who cannot get or maintain an erection that lasts long enough or is firm enough to penetrate, are considered to have erectile dysfunction.

Psychological factors can impact the ability to get and maintain erections, but quite often ED has a physical cause, particularly in older men.  Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are the most common physical causes of ED; however, there are many factors that may also be associated with erectile dysfunction5.

“Erectile dysfunction will affect nearly 1 in 5 American men older than 20 at some time in their lifetime41.”

Medications, such as certain blood pressure drugs or antidepressants can interfere with erectile function.  Treatments for prostate cancer or BPH can damage nerves and blood vessels that impact nerve stimulation and blood flow important for creating erections.  Lifestyle factors like smoking, excessive drinking and being overweight or getting too little exercise may reduce blood flow to the penis making erections difficult5.

Some men with ED are able to improve sexual function by making lifestyle changes such as giving up smoking, losing weight, or exercising more often5.If you suspect a medication could be contributing to ED, talk to your doctor about adjusting the dosage or switching to another drug.

ED can also be a warning sign of a heart attack or stroke before it happens. Because the blood vessels in the penis are smaller than those closer to the heart, they may be quicker to react to changes and may signal the beginning stages of heart disease5. It is important for men with ED to understand this connection and see doctor specializing in erectile dysfunction.

There is hope.  No matter the severity or physical cause of a man’s ED, there are solutions to regain intimacy, self-confidence and return to a satisfying sex life.