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Impotence -- also known as erectile dysfunction or ED -- can be caused by anything that disrupts the sequence of events leading to an erection. The most common cause is other health conditions, such as nerve damage, diabetes, or diseased arteries. Many cases of impotence can be treated with medication, either taken orally or injected into the penis.

What Is Impotence?

Some people can talk to their doctors about sex without any embarrassment. Others feel that sex is private and do not want to share details with anyone. But if you have erection problems, including getting or keeping an erection, you have two good reasons to talk to a doctor:
  • Your health
  • Your quality of life.
Today, impotence is more commonly known as erectile dysfunction, or ED. In fact, the word "impotence" may also be used to describe other problems that interfere with sexual intercourse and reproduction, such as lack of sexual desire and problems with ejaculation or orgasm. Using the term erectile dysfunction makes it clear that those other problems are not involved.
However, in this article, the terms impotence and erectile dysfunction are used to describe the same problem: the repeated inability to get or keep an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse.

What Causes an Erection?

Hormones, blood vessels, nerves, and muscles must all work together to cause an erection.
Your brain starts an erection by sending nerve signals to the penis when it senses sexual stimulation or arousal. Touching may cause this arousal. Another trigger can be something you see or hear. Or it may simply be a sexual thought or dream.
The nerve signals sent from the brain cause the muscles within the penis to relax and let blood flow into the spongy tissue within it. Blood collects in this tissue like water filling a sponge. As a result, the penis becomes larger and firmer, like an inflated balloon. The veins in the area then become closed off to keep blood from flowing out.
After climax, or after the sexual arousal has passed, the veins open back up and blood flows back into the body.
Due to the important role blood vessels play in this process, healthy blood vessels are needed for an erection to occur.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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