Erectile dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction is when a man is unable to get and maintain an erect penis, affecting his ability to have sexual intercourse. Erectile dysfunction is also known as impotence.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is erectile dysfunction?

Erectile dysfunction is a very common condition which can affect men at any age. However, you’re more likely to have erectile dysfunction if you’re older. Erectile dysfunction is estimated to affect one in two men age 40 to 70, although it often only happens occasionally.

Regular or ongoing erectile dysfunction can take its toll on your confidence, your sex life or your relationships.

Erectile dysfunction is often the result of a physical cause. Erectile dysfunction causes include:

  • Conditions affecting your circulation, such as coronary heart disease and diabetes
  • Damage to your nerves or spinal cord
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Side effects of certain medications, including some high blood pressure treatments and anti-depressants
  • Lifestyle factors, including lack of exercise, smoking, higher than recommended alcohol consumption and drug misuse

In some cases, erectile dysfunction causes are psychological, including:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Depression
  • Relationship problems
  • Previous sexual abuse
  • Performance anxiety

Erectile dysfunction can usually be treated, often by treating any underlying physical or psychological conditions. In some cases, medication may be recommended, such as erectile dysfunction tablets.

How to tell if you have erectile dysfunction

The key symptom of erectile dysfunction is the inability to maintain an erection and experience satisfactory sexual intercourse.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Book an appointment

Diagnosis and tests for erectile dysfunction

You should always mention erectile dysfunction to your GP if you’re experiencing it. It can be a symptom of a serious health condition, such as heart disease or depression.

To check for underlying health conditions, your GP may carry out a range of physical tests, including:

Your GP may examine your penis and may also examine your rectum to check for prostate cancer.

In some cases, your GP may refer you to a consultant for further tests, diagnosis and/or treatment. If there’s a psychological reason for your erectile dysfunction, your GP may refer you to a psychologist.

Common treatments for erectile dysfunction

Your GP will advise you about lifestyle changes to help relieve your erectile dysfunction. This may involve losing weight, stopping smoking and/or taking regular exercise.

There are also several specific erectile dysfunction cures. Your GP or consultant may suggest:

  • Medical treatment – a range of erectile dysfunction tablets, injections and pessaries are available which temporarily boost blood supply to the penis
  • Hormone treatment
  • Vacuum pump – an effective, non-invasive method of obtaining an erection
  • Penile implants – a surgical procedure which is only recommended when other treatments, including erectile dysfunction tablets, have been unsuccessful

If your erectile dysfunction is caused by an underlying condition, your doctor will arrange the appropriate treatment for this condition.

If your erectile dysfunction is psychological, your doctor may refer you for counselling, sex therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).