Erectile dysfunction (formerly called impotence) is the inability to achieve or maintain an erection sufficiently rigid for sexual intercourse. Sexual drive and the ability to have an orgasm are not necessarily affected. Because all men have erection problems from time to time, doctors consider erectile dysfunction to be present if attempts at intercourse fail at least 25% of the time.
Erectile dysfunction is not new in either medicine or human experience, but it is not easily or openly discussed. Cultural expectations of male sexuality inhibit many men from seeking help for a disorder that can usually benefit from medical treatment.
The Penis and Erectile Function
The Structure of the Penis. The penis is composed of the following structures:
- Two parallel columns of spongy tissue called the corpus cavernosa, or erectile bodies.
- A central spongy chamber called the corpus spongiosum, which contains the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder through the penis.
These structures are made up of erectile tissue. Erectile tissue is rich in tiny pools of blood vessels called cavernous sinuses. Each of these vessels are surrounded by smooth muscles and supported by elastic fibrous tissue composed of a protein called collagen.
Erectile Function and Nitric Oxide. The penis is either flaccid or erect depending on the state of arousal. In the flaccid, or unerect, penis, the following normally occurs:
- Small arteries leading to the cavernous sinuses contract, reducing the inflow of blood.
- The smooth muscles regulating the many tiny blood vessels also stay contracted, limiting the amount of blood that can collect in the penis.
Review Date: 07/20/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.