Erectile dysfunction (ED) is the inability of a man to achieve or maintain an
erection sufficient for his sexual needs or the needs of his partner. Most men
experience this at some point in their lives, usually by age 40, and are not
psychologically affected by it.
Some men, however, experience chronic, complete erectile dysfunction
(impotence), and others, partial or brief erections. Frequent erectile
dysfunction can cause emotional and relationship problems, and often leads to
diminished self-esteem. Erectile dysfunction has many causes, most of which are
treatable, and is not an inevitable consequence of aging.
Incidence and Prevalence
The term "erectile dysfunction" can mean the inability to achieve erection, an
inconsistent ability to do so, or the ability to achieve only brief erections.
These various definitions make estimating the incidence of erectile dysfunction
difficult. According to the National Institutes of Health in 2002, an estimated
15 million to 30 million men in the United States experience chronic erectile
According to the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS),
approximately 22 out of every 1000 men in the United States sought medical
attention for ED in 1999.
Incidence of the disorder increases with age. Chronic ED affects about 5% of
men in their 40s and 15–25% of men by the age of 65. Transient ED and inadequate
erection affect as many as 50% of men between the ages of 40 and 70.
Diseases (e.g., diabetes, kidney disease, alcoholism, atherosclerosis)
account for as many as 70% of chronic ED cases and psychological factors (e.g.,
stress, anxiety, depression) may account for 10–20% of cases. Between 35 and 50%
of men with diabetes experience ED.
Anatomy of the Penis
The internal structure of the penis consists of two cylinder-shaped vascular
tissue bodies (corpora cavernosa) that run throughout the penis; the urethra
(tube for expelling urine and ejaculate); erectile tissue surrounding the
urethra; two main arteries; and several veins and nerves. The longest part of
the penis is the shaft, at the end of which is the head, or glans penis. The
opening at the tip of the glans, which allows for urination and ejaculation, is
Physiology of Erection
The physiological process of erection begins in the brain and involves the
nervous and vascular systems. Neurotransmitters in the brain (e.g., epinephrine,
acetylcholine, nitric oxide) are some of the chemicals that initiate it.
Physical or psychological stimulation (arousal) causes nerves to send messages
to the vascular system, which results in significant blood flow to the penis.
Two arteries in the penis supply blood to erectile tissue and the corpora
cavernosa, which become engorged and expand as a result of increased blood flow
Because blood must stay in the penis to maintain rigidity, erectile tissue is
enclosed by fibrous elastic sheathes (tunicae) that cinch to prevent blood from
leaving the penis during erection. When stimulation ends, or following
ejaculation, pressure in the penis decreases, blood is released, and the penis
resumes its normal shape.