Erectile dysfunction (also known as ED, or impotence
) is the inability to achieve or maintain an erection. It is a common condition that has a number of causes, both physical and psychological. It is estimated that half of all men between the ages of 40 and 70 will have experienced erectile dysfunction to some degree. Although erectile dysfunction is more common in older men
, it is not only this age group that is affected by the condition. ED can be due to an underlying health condition, so it is important to investigate and treat the cause.
There must be adequate blood flow to the penis to achieve an erection. If the blood flow is not sufficient, then erectile problems can occur.
Other influences on your ability to achieve an erection include brain stimulus and that the nerves to the penis are working properly. If anything physical or emotional interferes with any or all of these three things, you could experience problems with getting a full erection.
What are the causes of erectile problems?
Erectile difficulties can be caused by physical or psychological factors
ED can sometimes only occur in particular circumstances – for example, you may be able to achieve an erection while masturbating, but be unable to get a full erection when with your sexual partner. This may mean that your ED is due to psychological causes.
If you are unable to get or maintain an erection at all, then the cause of your ED may be physical.
Erectile dysfunction can also be a side-effect of using certain medicines.
For further information, read our advice on causes of erectile dysfunction
What happens when you get an erection?
Erections can happen for a number of reasons, usually because of sexually arousing stimulus and thoughts. The erectile process is complex. It involves nerves and muscles and depends on the blood flow to the penis.
When you are sexually stimulated, messages from the brain cause nerves in your penis to relax and open up the blood vessels in the penis (called corpora cavernosa).
Then, blood from the cavernosus arteries pumps through to fill the blood vessels. As the penis fills with blood, this creates pressure and the penis stiffens and grows in size to create an erection. The membrane which surrounds the corpora cavernosa traps the blood in the blood vessels, which maintains the erection. When you stop feeling aroused or you ejaculate, the muscles in your penis contract, the blood flows away from the penis and the erection goes down.
Erections usually begin during puberty. They can occur during your sleep and many men have erections first thing in the morning. Erections can last for any time from a few minutes to a longer period, depending on the situation.
How common are erectile problems?
Many men will experience erectile problems at some point in their life. The condition is common in men over the age of 40 but it can also occur in younger men. It is estimated that ED affects half of men between 40 and 70.
Erection problems are often just a temporary issue, but if the problem persists, you may need to seek medical advice. It is important to find out what is causing your ED to rule out serious underlying health issues that could be contributing to your erectile dysfunction.
Who can develop erection problems?
You can develop erectile difficulties at any age. However, it is thought that around half of men aged 40 to 70 experience erection problems. It is estimated that 7 in 10 men over the age of 70 suffer from the condition.
If you have diabetes then you may be more likely to suffer from ED and you may experience erection problems a number of years earlier than men without diabetes. Diabetics are also more likely to develop erectile dysfunction in later life.
Studies have shown that there is consistent evidence for an association between benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and sexual dysfunction
regardless of age.
Can cycling cause erectile problems?
Until recently, it was thought that cycling could cause erection problems because of the pressure caused by the bike saddle on the groin area. However, British research published in 2014 found no link between cycling and ED. Researchers studied over 5000 cyclists who rode eight and a half hours or more every week and found no causal link between the amount of time spent cycling and sexual function. Study author Milo Hollingworth of University College London concluded that there was “no positive association between cycling and erectile dysfunction”.
I am having problems with maintaining an erection - what should I do?
First of all, try not to worry – ED is a common problem and often the cause, whether it is physical or emotional, can be identified and treated.
The treatment for ED that is best for you depends on what is causing the problem. If the cause of your erection problems is a physical one, then treating this could help to cure the ED.
If the cause is psychological, for instance you have depression or suffer from performance anxiety, counselling could help. Taking steps to reduce the stress in your life could also help you to achieve and maintain erections again.
Making healthy lifestyle choices can also help to resolve erection problems. Quitting smoking
, reducing your alcohol intake, giving up recreational drugs, losing weight if you’re overweight, and taking up regular exercise could all help you to regain your ability to get and maintain a full erection.
There are also drugs available which can help you to overcome erection problems. These work by temporarily increasing the blood flow to the penis, allowing you to get an erection and sustain it for a period of time. However, you must consult a doctor before taking these drugs as they must be used with caution if you have or have had cardiovascular disease, have had a stroke, or have low blood pressure. Drugs to treat ED (for example Viagra) can also interact with certain prescribed and recreational drugs.
If you would prefer to consult an online doctor, use our free ED assessment or book a phone consultation with one of our doctors.
Can ED be prevented?
Depending on what is causing your ED, you can take steps to prevent it from occurring. Making healthy lifestyle changes, for example losing weight, giving up smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, avoiding illegal drugs and taking more exercise can all help to prevent the condition.
Checking the patient information leaflets of any medications you take for side effects that may include ED can also be useful, as your doctor may be able to prescribe you another medicine that doesn’t cause erection problems. Remember to never stop taking a prescribed medication without talking to a doctor first.
Make sure that you are managing any chronic health conditions such as diabetes correctly according to your doctor’s advice.