Dealing with ED can be tough on a relationship, but it often has medical causes that can be treated.

If your partner has difficulty having or maintaining an erection on a regular basis, he might have erectile dysfunction (ED). ED can affect his quality of life, stress level, self-confidence and relationship — but it doesn’t have to. Although it can feel embarrassing to reach out for help, ED might be caused by a medical condition and in fact can sometimes be the first sign of a more serious underlying problem, so it’s important to get checked out.

Causes of ED

Getting an erection is part physical and part psychological, so the causes of ED can stem from either. Depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health issues can lead to ED, and it can become a vicious cycle, as ED can make stress and anxiety worse.

“It is natural to not feel great about admitting that things are not working like they used to,” said Mary K. Samplaski, MD, assistant professor of clinical urology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a male infertility expert at Keck Medicine of USC. “However, you should get it checked out for several reasons. One, ED may represent a more serious underlying condition; two, ED is more common than you think; and three, ED is usually fixable, and men are much happier when this part of their lives is in working order.”

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Physically, erectile dysfunction can be a symptom of heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, the most common cause of ED is a blood vessel problem called atherosclerosis — more commonly known as clogged arteries. This affects the blood vessels throughout the entire body, including those that supply blood to the penis to obtain an erection.

Not surprisingly, other conditions associated with cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, also can lead to ED. So diagnosing and treating ED can be helpful not only for an improved sex life, but also for preventing a heart attack.

ED also can be a sign of diabetes, especially in younger men. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, men with diabetes are two to three times more likely to experience ED than those who don’t have diabetes. This is due to the damage diabetes can cause to nerves and blood vessels. Also, because diabetes is associated with being overweight, obesity is another risk factor for ED.

Other medical causes that can lead to ED include prostate or bladder cancer and subsequent surgery, hormone problems, side effects from certain medications, nerve disorders such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis, and alcohol and substance abuse.

Treatments for ED

If your partner is hesitant to talk to a doctor about his ED symptoms, concern over the serious medical conditions associated with it might persuade him. Although ED is more common in older men, it’s not necessarily just a normal part of aging. Talk to your partner (ideally not in bed, though), assure him it’s not his fault and offer to go with him to the appointment. Remember, urologists deal with issues concerning the penis all day long, so it’s not embarrassing for them — and shouldn’t be for their patients, either.

Treatments may be as simple as daily modifications to live a healthier lifestyle. Exercising, losing weight and eating right have all been shown to fight ED — as well as the medical causes associated with it. Quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol also can help. Medical treatments to treat ED itself (in addition to meds to treat the underlying cause) begin with oral medications, which are successful for most men. If they aren’t, further treatments may include injections, suppositories, vacuum devices or surgery. Check with your doctor before using any over-the-counter or herbal supplements to make sure they’re safe for you.

By Tina Donvito

If you think you may be suffering from erectile dysfunction, make an appointment with the urologic specialists at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.