What are erection problems?
Getting and maintaining an erection hard enough for sex is complex. The body has to send the right signals to the brain and blood has to flow into the penis.
Sometimes these things don’t happen the way you need them to. That’s when erection problems (EPs) occur.
What’s the difference between ‘erection problems’ and ‘erectile dysfunction’?
Nothing at all. Erectile dysfunction is the medical term for erection problems.
What causes erection problems?
The short answer is reduced blood flow to the penis. But what causes that? A number of factors can contribute to EPs, or what doctors call erectile dysfunction (ED). Some are physical, while others have more to do with your mental wellness or from taking certain medications.
It’s important to know erection problems can happen to any man at any age. In fact EPs are remarkably common in younger men. By the age of 40, 4 in every 10 men may have some experience of EPs. Many of these men identify the stress of their professional and personal lives as a factor in their EPs.
Erection problems can put a strain on your relationship. They can also be a warning sign of a health condition or disease you might not be aware of. That’s why it’s important to take action and find a solution for your EPs. You should also talk to a pharmacist, as they’ll be able to provide further support.
Things you might have heard about erection problems
Erection problems aren’t talked about as openly as they should be. That’s why myths like these are able to spread:
EPs are only a problem for men over 60.
About 40% of men under 40 might tell you differently.
EPs are a reflection of your masculinity.
Wrong. EPs often occur due to health conditions – ones you might not even know you have. If you are experiencing EPs, talk to a pharmacist or make an appointment to see your doctor and discuss your health.
EPs have nothing to do with other health problems.
In fact EPs can result from issues to do with your physical health, your mental wellness, or from taking certain medications.
a part of life
If you can’t get or keep an erection hard enough for sex, you might have erection problems (EPs). Doctors call this condition erectile dysfunction (ED).
Erection problems can be experienced in different ways. Some men:
- Don’t get an erection at all
- Get an erection that isn’t hard enough for sex
- Get an erection but can’t keep it long enough for sex
For some men with EPs it’s difficult to get or keep an erection every time they try to have sex. For others, EPs can happen every once in a while.
An estimated 4.3 million men in the UK suffer erection problems,* but many of them keep silent and try and ignore the problem – sometimes for years.
There’s no reason to be embarrassed or ashamed about EPs – they can be a part of life, and the good news is that treatments for them – or treatments for erectile dysfunction, as your doctor might refer to them as – can be successful in the majority of cases.
Erection problems and your state of mind
Life brings a lot of pressures. Work, family, money, time: these are all things that can get on top of you. Even being in love can feel like an obstacle course sometimes. Erection problems (EPs) are often thought of as a physical condition with a physical cause, but even young, fit and healthy men with no underlying health conditions can experience them.
Poor mental wellness and psychological factors can play an important role in erection problems by interfering with how the brain signals a physical response – in this case, an erection. EPs caused by psychological triggers should be taken just as seriously as those caused by anything else. The good news is the cause of your EPs can usually be identified, often with the help of a pharmacist or doctor.
Some of the psychological issues that can contribute to erection problems include:
Modern life is stressful. Do you work long hours? Worry about money? When you’re stressed it’s hard to leave your worries at the bedroom door.
EPs are strongly linked to stress and anxiety. As many as 4 in 10 men with EPs identify stress as the reason for their problems.
Depression and anxiety are the main psychological risk factors for erection problems in young men.
Depression can often lead to a reduced libido.
Around 25% of men with depression might also suffer EPs.
If you suffer from low self-esteem you might have a negative view of yourself and your abilities, and might feel you aren’t capable of satisfying your partner. Low self-esteem can stem from EPs and can also cause more serious EPs.
Nervousness and anxiety about sex can lead to erection problems. This can trigger a vicious cycle of failure, the avoidance of sex, a negative impact on self-esteem, depression and increasing anxiety.
Instability within your relationship can be a cause of erection problems.
The anxiety generated by EPs can also result in uneasiness, increased remoteness and arguments within a relationship. Nearly a third of men have reported EPs putting a strain on their relationship.
In the case of single men, in one survey 25% of men reported a loss of confidence when dating due to EPs.
Find out how to discuss erection problems on the Talking To Your Partner About EPs page.
Things you can do
If you experience any of the these issues, consider the following options:
Work it out
People who experience stress sometimes find exercise helps.
Reconnect with yourself
Mindfulness – paying more attention to your thoughts and feelings, and the world around you, is recommended as a method for preventing depression in those who have experienced it several times before.
Talk about it
Counselling with a trained therapist can help you with many aspects of mental wellness, from stress and anxiety to low self-esteem and relationship problems.
Is erectile dysfunction a type of erection problem?
No. Erection problems (EP) and erectile dysfunction (ED) are exactly the same thing. Erectile dysfunction is the term that doctors and pharmacists use when talking about erection problems.
Lifestyle choices and erection problems
The stress of daily life can result in behaviours that can contribute to EPs. These include:
Smoking cigarettes has a harmful effect on the function of your blood vessels, including those in the penis.
Eating badly and drinking too much
Eating too much fatty, salty and/or sugary food, and not enough fruit and vegetables, can result in weight gain. In fact, a poor diet is a major cause of obesity, which can increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis – or narrowing of the blood vessels. This can impair blood flow to the penis and the ability to get and keep an erection.
Being overweight or obese increases your risk of other health problems, including heart disease and diabetes. These risk factors are linked to erection problems.
Heavy drinking substantially increases the risk of developing EPs, as well as premature ejaculation and reduced libido.
Not exercising increases the risk of obesity, which increases your likelihood of developing high blood pressure and heart disease.
Inactivity also puts you at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a condition that can cause erection problems. Looking at it the other way, erection problems can be a signal of undiagnosed diabetes. In the average man aged 40–59 without EPs, there is a 2% chance of having undiagnosed diabetes. This increases to 10% in men with EPs.
Recreational drug use
Various recreational drugs have links to EPs. Cocaine causes something called ‘vasoconstriction’, which reduces blood flow to the penis. Others, including MDMA and amphetamines, interfere with certain signals involved in causing erections.
A scientific study has shown that men with a history of recreational drug use were over twice as likely to report erection problems than those who had never used recreational drugs.
Recreational drugs shouldn’t be taken with medicine for EPs.
Things you can do
Do any of the behaviors listed above apply to you? You might be able to reduce your risk of experiencing erection problems by making some positive changes to your lifestyle. Try to:
Lose weight by eating healthily
Changing what you eat could help reduce your weight and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. This will improve the health of your heart. All of these elements – weight, blood pressure and heart health – can be involved with EPs.
Physical activity helps keep your blood vessels and heart healthy.
It can also relax you and improve wellbeing, which will lower your stress level
Each week, try and aim for 20 minutes a day of moderately intense activity – brisk walking or cycling to work – or 10 minutes a day of vigorous activity, like running.
The NHS recommends stopping smoking as one of the most important lifestyle changes that might help with erection problems.
Avoid recreational drug use
It’s a good idea to stop taking any substances that interfere with your body’s ability to get and maintain an erection.
Erection problems and your body
Your overall physical health has an important part to play in your ability to get and keep erections hard enough for sex. After all, a healthy blood flow to the penis is what’s needed most for an erection.
There are many different physical conditions and diseases that can affect the blood vessels, muscles and nerves you need to be working properly in order to get an erection. Let’s look at some of the most common of these causes of erection problems (EPs) – or causes of erectile dysfunction (ED), as your doctor might call it:
- The most common physical causes of erection problems (EPs) are to do with the health of your heart and blood vessels and the related issue of high blood pressure
- Heart disease – what doctors call cardiovascular disease – can lead to the build-up of fatty deposits in the blood vessels in the penis, which narrows and damages them. Erections are then less easily achieved, or might be less firm than before, because less blood is able to flow into the penis
- In some cases EPs can be a warning sign of a physical condition such as cardiovascular disease
High blood pressure
- Over time high blood pressure – also called hypertension – damages the lining of the blood vessels, including those in the penis
- As the blood vessels fail to open up the flow of blood is restricted, which can have a long-lasting impact on erections
- High levels of cholesterol can clog up blood vessels. This might prevent blood flow to the penis so there isn’t enough for an erection to happen
- Men with diabetes are at high risk of developing erection problems
- People with diabetes can’t make or properly process the hormone insulin, which results in too much sugar (glucose) in their blood. High blood glucose levels can damage nerves and blood vessels, including those involved in erections
- Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure and narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. In turn, blood flow to the penis may be impaired, which can affect the ability to get an erection
Other physical conditions can also contribute to erection problems. Your pharmacist or doctor will be able to talk to you about them.