Dysfunction: Learn More
Because It Could Save Your Life
never thought it would happen to you -- or at least until you were
a lot older.
But here you are, just hitting your
midlife stride and suddenly, what was once an occasional problem
brought on by overwork or too much wine is now occurring a lot more
frequently -- and for what seems like no reason at all.
Erectile dysfunction or ED -- the
inability to have an erection or sustain one long enough for intimate
relations -- is a condition that regularly affects some 30 million
That's a message worth sharing during
National Men's Health Week, which concludes tomorrow.
While once believed to be a largely
unavoidable rite of passage into the senior years, chronic erectile
dysfunction is now showing up in much younger men, often beginning
as early as 40 years old, experts say.
"It's an important barometer
of a man's overall health -- particularly the health of the blood
vessels. So if a man is at risk for any type of vascular disease,
he is also at risk for ED, regardless of his age," says Dr.
Andrew McCollough, director of Sexual Health, Fertility and Microsurgery
at New York University Medical Center.
One reason: erections are closely
tied to vascular health.
For an erection to occur, a man must
experience a series of brain signals that combine with local nerve
stimulation to relax a pair of smooth muscles that run the length
of the inside of the penis. This, in turn, lets blood flow from
nearby vessels, into two tissue-filled chambers, also located inside
The force of the blood creates a
pressure that lets the penis expand, creating an erection. A thin
membrane helps trap the blood and keep it in the penile chambers,
long enough to sustain the erection.
The entire process reverses when
the muscles in the penis contract, usually following orgasm. This
halts the flow of any more blood into the chambers, while simultaneously
opening several vascular ports that let the blood that caused the
erection drain back into the nearby vessels, McCollough explains.
"Obviously, anything that impedes
that entire process -- particularly anything which affects the ability
of blood to flow freely into the penis -- has the potential to cause
ED," he says.
While it was once believed that erectile
dysfunction was largely the result of psychological problems, this
is frequently not the case, particularly in men over 40.
Not only is the problem almost always
the result of a physical condition, most men are surprised to learn
that some very common conditions, including high blood pressure,
high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes, are often a major cause,
"Frequently, erectile dysfunction
is the first sign of these problems, and it can show up long before
any typical symptoms develop," says Dr. Natan Bar-Chama, director
of male reproductive medicine and surgery at Mount Sinai Medical
Center in New York City.
What's more, he says, diagnosing
and treating these common health problems, particularly in their
early stages, can not only protect a man's overall health, it can
often have a remarkable effect on erectile dysfunction.
Experts say most men are very surprised
to discover that by simply lowering their cholesterol or their blood
pressure -- often through simple measures such as diet and exercise
-- they can also boost their virility, says Bar-Chama. The same
is true, he says, of men who lose weight and cut back on cigarettes
"This is particularly true at
the start of these conditions, before any real damage is done to
the blood vessels," McCollough adds.
Still, experts say most men are resistant
about seeing a doctor for erectile dysfunction, or even their general
health. And doctors don't always make it easy for men to come forward
with their problems.
"There is still a tremendous
resistance to seeking treatment -- men have a problem asking physicians
about ED. And doctors don't ask their patients if ED is a problem
often enough," Bar-Chama says.
This, he says, not only means that
erectile dysfunction goes untreated, but that sometimes, other health
problems are also overlooked at their earliest, most easily treated
Studies show that only between 10
percent and 15 percent of men with erectile dysfunction ever seek
medical treatment -- or even mention the problem to their doctor.
Experts say they now have a virtual
war chest of treatment options aimed specifically at erectile dysfunction,
including mechanical devices that help bring blood into the penis
and keep it there long enough to have an erection.
And, there are drugs designed to
work on various aspects of penile physiology involved in the erection
While that "little blue pill"
known as Viagra remains the breakthrough treatment, later this year
two other similar medications -- Cialis and Levitra -- are likely
to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, giving men
even more options.
However, both Bar-Chama and McCollough
warn men against obtaining drugs for treatment of erectile dysfunction
without first receiving a physical examination, including important
"You should never attempt to
treat chronic ED on your own," McCollough says.
In addition, doctors also warn that
just because your penis is working fine, it's not a reason to assume
your overall health is also fine.
"While ED is often the first
and earliest sign of other health problems, it can also be the last
and final sign. So don't skip that annual physical and always make
a point of discussing your sexual health with your doctor,"
To learn more about erectile dysfunction,
visit The American
Foundation for Urologic Disease or click
Reference Source 101