Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Managing erectile dysfunction

  • Comment

Patricia Allen, MA, DipN (Lond), RM, RGN.

Clinical Nurse Specialist, Andrology Service, Urology Department, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is the inability to achieve and maintain an erection adequate for satisfactory sexual performance (NIH Consensus Conference, 1993). In the past, it was thought to be the result of psychological problems - psychogenic ED - but we now realise that in most men the condition is organic and caused primarily by underlying physical problems (Spector and Carey, 1990) (Box 1). Most men with organic ED develop psychological problems and are said to have mixed ED. The risk increases with age, but it is not a normal part of ageing.


To distinguish organic ED from psychogenic ED it is essential to take a detailed patient history (Box 2). This, with the patient’s age, may indicate the need for a more detailed physical examination by a doctor. Most patients need blood pressure measurement and examination of the genitals to exclude abnormalities of the testicles, shaft of the penis and foreskin. A few men will require referral to secondary care (Box 3).

Basic investigations include tests for glucose, prolactin, free testosterone and sex-hormone binding globulin levels. If testosterone levels are low, a sample should be taken to test for luteinising hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone and testosterone. Dipstick urine testing assesses blood and protein components.

Medical treatment

Oral treatments apomorphine SL (Uprima) or sildenafil (Viagra) are now generally the first-choice treatment for most men.

Apomorphine SL is a dopamine receptor agonist that acts on the central nervous system to enhance the erectile process. In most patients who respond, erection is facilitated within 20 minutes of taking it, which can help restore the spontaneity for a more natural sex life (Heaton et al, 2002). Sildenafil is a phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE-5) inhibitor. It promotes and amplifies cavernosal muscle relaxation, improving penile blood flow. An erection is achieved within 30-60 minutes of oral administration.

The most common side-effects associated with apomorphine SL are headache, nausea and dizziness (Montors, 2002) while sildenafil can cause headache, flushing, altered colour vision and indigestion (Goldstein et al, 1998). Unlike apomorphine SL, sildenafil is contraindicated in men taking nitrates.

Alprostadil, in intracavernosal (Caverject, Viridal Duo) or transurethral (MUSE) formulations, is often chosen as a second- or third-line treatment when oral treatment is ineffective or contraindicated (Rosen, 2000), or is the first-line treatment through patient choice. Usually mild penile pain on injection and fibrosis are associated with intracavernosal alprostadil (Porst, 1997), while penile and urethral pain are reported with transurethral pellets (Padma-Nathan, 1997).

Priapism is not generally associated with apomorphine SL or sildenafil, but can occur with both formulations of alprostadil (Padma-Nathan, 1997). Warn patients to seek urgent treatment if this happens.

Devices and surgery

Vacuum devices consist of a cylinder fitted over the penis, attached to a pump. Air is pumped out, causing the penis to fill with blood and become erect. A constriction ring is fitted at the penis base to maintain erection.

Semi-rigid or inflatable penile implants are the alternative for men who are unsuitable or do not respond to other treatments. Implants can succeed in selected patients, but the devices can break down and become infected, necessitating removal (Moore, 1988).


Careful follow-up is essential. Most patients in our clinic are treated successfully after three to four visits, but for others it can take longer. Nurses should stress that other therapies are available and that patients get in touch if they have any concerns.

How to approach the patient

- Men with erectile dysfunction should be given the time and privacy to discuss their problem. This may be difficult in primary care, and patients may be more relaxed if the ED clinic is held outside regular surgery hours. Never make assumptions based on your own experience or attitudes.

- Do not assume that older men and their partners do not want penetrative sex. Similarly, when discussing the man’s relationship, it is unwise to assume that his partner is necessarily female.

- Although a man may make the initial approach, it is helpful to see both the patient and his partner. Not only may partners feel hurt that their partner does not trust them with such intimate concerns, but they may themselves have physical or psychological sexual problems that need to be addressed (Riley and Riley, 2000).

- Some men will not have a partner but this should not be a reason for refusing treatment. A man may not have a partner because his worries about his ED prevent him from forming intimate relationships. Alternatively, the man may be concerned that ED will blight a currently non-sexual relationship that he wishes to take further. It is also perfectly reasonable for men without partners to want to gain a sexual outlet in masturbation.

Schedule 11

Nurses should explain to the patient that all NHS drug treatments for erectile dysfunction are covered by Schedule 11 regulations, which allow the Department of Health to compile a list of drugs that GPs may prescribe only in certain circumstances or for specific groups of patients.

Under Schedule 11, GPs are allowed to prescribe one NHS treatment a week to men who:

- Have had radical pelvic surgery

- Have had their prostate removed or have been treated for prostate cancer

- Have been treated for renal failure by transplant or dialysis

- Have spinal cord or severe pelvic injury

- Have diabetes

- Have conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, spina bifida or poliomyelitis.

GPs can continue to prescribe ED treatment to men who do not fall into these categories but who were receiving treatment on September 14,1998.

Men who fall outside these guidelines or those wishing to have intercourse more often will have to obtain their treatment on private prescription.

Source: NHS Executive, 1999.

The nurse’s role

- For nurses who run chronic disease clinics, it is worth being proactive and bringing up the subject during routine appointments. Nurses can simply ask the man if he has any problems in his relationship. For patients with chronic disease, a more direct approach might be to mention that erectile problems are associated with the condition but that treatments are available.

- The final choice of treatment lies with the patient, and the nurse’s role is to give unbiased advice and help him make a choice that is best for him and, where applicable, his partner. However, it is important to make sure the patient has reasonable expectations since no treatment will solve all his relationship problems. For this reason, treatment goals should be agreed at the outset and psychosexual therapy or relationship counselling arranged as appropriate.





  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.