An erection is a complex process. It may not seem that complicated – a man can be sexually turned on by his partner’s smile, an erotic fantasy, or a beautiful person who passes him on the street. An erection might even seem automatic.
But inside his brain and body, connections must be in tip-top shape for an erection to occur. The sexual stimulus – that smile or a sexy voice – gets processed by his brain, which sends signals to his genitals to trigger an erection. Smooth muscle tissue needs to relax, arteries need to widen, blood needs to flow into the penis, and veins need to constrict to keep the blood in place until he ejaculates or the stimulation stops.
Neuropathy is a common cause of erectile dysfunction. More here.... (Click to tweet)
Today, we’re going to focus on the signaling that takes place in the central nervous system – the network that connects the brain and the genitals. For some men, nerve damage interferes with the pathway, making it more difficult – or impossible – for sexual signals to get through. A man may experience something that makes him excited, but the erection just doesn’t happen.
What is neuropathy?
The medical term for this nerve damage is neuropathy. The type of neuropathy associated with erectile dysfunction (ED) is called peripheral neuropathy. This term is used because the nerve damage affects other parts of the body, like the hands, feet, and penis.
This type of neuropathy is also classified as autonomic. It affects processes that happen without our thinking much about them, like breathing, digestion, and erections.
What causes neuropathy?
Neuropathy that leads to ED can have a number of causes. Here are some examples:
- Injury to the genitals
- Endocrine disorders, especially diabetes
- Blood vessel diseases
- Cancer and cancer treatments, particularly chemotherapy
- Excessive alcohol consumption
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that 60% to 70% of people with diabetes have some degree of neuropathy. And diabetes is an important risk factor for ED. Diabetic men are almost four times more likely to develop ED than non-diabetic men. And they tend to develop ED ten to fifteen years earlier, too.
High blood sugar can disrupt the signals between the brain and genitals. It can also damage blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the penis. (To learn more about diabetes and erectile dysfunction, click here.)
Sometimes, nerves can heal when the cause of the damage is addressed. For example, drinking less alcohol or treating an infection may be enough for the nerves to repair themselves.
Diabetic men are encouraged to keep their blood sugar under control. Managing diabetes may involve medication, special diets, and exercise programs. Your doctor can tell you more about the best approaches for you. And be sure to check your blood sugar levels regularly.
Reducing the risk
As with many health issues, maintaining healthy habits plays a key role in preventing neuropathy. If you drink too much, try to cut down (and don’t hesitate to ask for professional help if you need it). If you smoke, ask your doctor about a smoking cessation program. If you have diabetes, follow your doctor’s instructions to the letter. Make healthy food choices and keep to a healthy weight. Try joining a gym or getting together with friends to exercise.
The benefits of good habits are enormous. You’ll maintain your health, reduce the risk of neuropathy, and might enhance your sex life, too!
Medscape Medical News
“Neuropathy an Underappreciated Cause of Erectile Dysfunction”
(November 16, 2011)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
“Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet”
Sexual Medicine Society of North America
“Understanding Diabetic Neuropathy and Erectile Dysfunction”