Overview of erectile dysfunction
Erectile dysfunction (ED), also known as impotence, is the inability to get and maintain an erection.
Erectile dysfunction is a very common condition, particularly in older men. It is estimated that half of all men between the ages of 40 and 70 will have it to some degree.
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have erectile dysfunction for more than a few weeks. They will assess your general state of health because the condition can be the first sign of more serious health conditions, such as heart disease (when the heart’s blood supply is blocked or interrupted).
Why does erectile dysfunction happen?
Erectile dysfunction can have a range of causes, both physical and psychological. Physical causes include:
- narrowing of the blood vessels going to the penis – commonly associated with high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol or diabetes
- hormonal problems
- surgery or injury
Psychological causes of ED include:
- relationship problems
Sometimes erectile dysfunction only occurs in certain situations. For example, you may be able to get an erection during masturbation, or you may find that you sometimes wake up with an erection but you are unable to get an erection with your sexual partner.
If this is the case, it is likely the underlying cause of erectile dysfunction is psychological (stress related). If you are unable to get an erection under any circumstances, it is likely that the underlying cause is physical.
Erectile dysfunction can also be a side-effect of using certain medicines.
Although you may be embarrassed, it's important to get a diagnosis so that the cause can be identified.
Your GP can usually diagnose erectile dysfunction. This will involve answering questions about your symptoms, as well as a physical examination and some simple tests.
How is erectile dysfunction treated?
Erectile dysfunction is primarily treated by tackling the cause of the problem, whether this is physical or psychological.
The narrowing of the arteries (called atherosclerosis) is one of the most common causes of ED. In these cases your GP may suggest lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, to try to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. This may help to relieve your symptoms as well as improving your general health.
You may also be given medication to treat atherosclerosis, such as cholesterol-lowering statins and drugs to reduce your blood pressure.
A number of treatments have been successful in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. Medication, such as sildenafil (sold as Viagra), can be used to manage it in at least two-thirds of cases. Vacuum pumps that encourage blood to flow to the penis and cause an erection are also successful in 90% of cases.
Psychological treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and sex therapy.
Overall, treatments for erectile dysfunction have improved significantly in recent years. Most men are eventually able to have sex again.
Last revised: 23 September 2014
Next review: 23 July 2017