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Erectile dysfunction health centre

Erectile dysfunction - Diagnosing erectile dysfunction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Erectile dysfunction (ED) can often be diagnosed by your GP. They will talk to you about your situation and may carry out a physical examination.

Some things your GP may ask you about include:

  • your symptoms
  • your overall physical and mental health
  • your alcohol consumption
  • whether you take drugs
  • whether you are currently taking any medication

If you do not want to talk to your GP about ED, you can visit a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic. You can find your nearest GUM clinic on the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) website.

Sexual history

Your GP will also need to ask you detailed questions about your sexual history. Try not to be embarrassed because ED is a common problem. You can request a male GP at your surgery if you prefer.

Your GP may ask about:

  • your previous and current sexual relationships 
  • what your sexual orientation is 
  • how long you have been experiencing ED
  • whether you can get any degree of erection with your partner, on your own or when you wake up in the morning 
  • whether you have been able to ejaculate or orgasm
  • your libido (your level of sexual desire)

ED that occurs all the time may suggest an underlying physical cause. If ED only occurs when you are attempting to have sex with your partner it may suggest that there is an underlying psychological (mental) cause.

Assessing your cardiovascular health

An important cause of ED is narrowed blood vessels. These are also linked with cardiovascular disease (conditions that affect the heart and blood flow). Your GP may therefore assess your cardiovascular health by seeing if you have any of the symptoms of cardiovascular disease. If you do, it is likely to be causing your ED.

Your GP may:

  • measure your blood pressure to see if you have high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • listen to your heart rate to check for any abnormalities
  • measure your height, weight and waist circumference to see if you are a healthy weight for your height 
  • ask you about your diet and lifestyle, for example, how much exercise you do
  • test a sample of your blood for glucose (sugar) and lipids (fatty substances), as high levels can indicate conditions affecting your heart or blood vessels

Physical examinations and tests

Your GP may carry out a physical examination of your penis to rule out anatomical causes (conditions that affect the physical structure of your penis).

If you are over the age of 50, your GP may suggest that you have a digital rectal examination (DRE). This involves your GP wearing gloves and inserting a finger into your anus (back passage). A DRE can be useful for diagnosing problems with the prostate (the small gland between the penis and the bladder), such as prostate cancer.

Blood tests may also be used to check for possible underlying health conditions. For example, measuring the levels of hormones such as testosterone can rule out hormonal conditions, such as hypogonadism (an abnormally low level of testosterone).

Further testing

In some cases you may be referred to a specialist for further testing, although this is usually only required if you are unusually young to be experiencing ED. This is because ED is relatively rare in men who are under 40. 

If it is thought that your ED is related to cardiovascular disease, these tests are rarely necessary.

Intracavernous injection test

An intracavernous injection test involves injecting a man-made (synthetic) hormone into your penis to increase the blood flow. This may be used to assess any abnormalities in your penis to help plan surgery. 

If the injection fails to produce an erection it may indicate that there is a problem with the blood supply to your penis. If you do get an erection during an intracavernous injection test, it is still possible that there is a problem with your blood vessels. You may, therefore, need an ultrasound scan as well.

Arteriography and dynamic infusion cavernosometry or cavernosography

These are specialised tests that involve injecting dye into the blood vessels of your penis and studying the dye on a scanner. These are only likely to be used if you are being considered for surgery or if a problem has been detected with your blood vessels.

Psychological assessment

If there may be an underlying psychological cause for your ED, your GP may refer you for a psychological assessment. This could be with:

  • a psychologist - a healthcare professional who specialises in the assessment and treatment of mental health conditions
  • a psychiatrist - a qualified medical doctor who has received further training in treating mental health conditions
Medical Review: September 09, 2012
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