I recently treated a young twenty-something man with a primary complaint of erectile dysfunction. When he started to notice this issue, he attempted to treat it by performing lots of kegels. (If you haven’t heard of kegel exercises, they’re done by repeatedly contracting and relaxing the muscles that form part of the pelvic floor, as if you were trying to stop peeing mid-stream.) I found this man’s story interesting because, as we discovered, in his case the kegels actually did more harm than good. We found that once he stopped kegeling and allowed his pelvic muscles to relax, his erections became stronger and he was able to ejaculate without any issues.
This scenario raises a key concern for us (and should for you as well) about what is recommended to treat erectile dysfunction. I performed a quick Google search on kegels as treatment for the pelvic floor, and found hundreds of websites instructing men to perform kegels to ameliorate erectile dysfunction, have longer and stronger erections – a quick and easy fix. I found a few sites instructing men to perform anywhere from 50-100 repetitions per day (insanity). I discovered a new book called Male Pelvic Fitness, a “user manual to your man parts
In conceiving the potential solutions to issues around erectile dysfunction, it’s really helpful to understand clearly how an erection is achieved and completed. To achieve an erection, there needs to be some form of stimulation, either from touch or some sort of audiovisual stimuli. Once the stimulation occurs, chemical messengers are released and blood starts to fill into the penis. In terms of the musculature, the bulbospongiosus and ischiocavernosus muscles need to be relaxed so blood can fill the area completely. Then the bulbospongiosus needs to contract to keep the blood in the penis. The erection ‘completes’ with the rhythmic contraction of the bulbospongiosus muscle.
When experiencing difficulty in achieving an erection, it’s important to figure out if you are able to achieve an erection at all or if this happens only when you are with your partner. If you are unable to achieve an erection on your own, this may be more related to a medical and/or physical condition. Examples of this could include heart conditions, neuromuscular disorders, or pelvic pain. To evaluate if this is the cause of your condition, you should follow-up with your physician to examine your cardiovascular, neurological, and musculoskeletal system. From here, they may recommend medications such as Viagra or Cialis, or sometimes a referral to a urologist.
If you can achieve erection on your own, but you then are unable to keep it while with your partner, it could be related to anxiety, stress, or any sort of relationship issue. There has been extensive research conducted into all potential contributors to erectile dysfunction, including increased use of Internet pornography, assuming that excessive use of internet pornography can change the way the brain perceives arousal, therefore changing the desired response. Dan Savage also explores this topic on his love and sex advice podcast, the Savage Lovecast. If your dysfunction is related to anxiety, stress, or relationship issues, it may be time to explore therapy with a sex-positive provider, or even meditation.
Over the years, myriad treatments and gadgets have been invented to assist with issues related to erections. They run the gamut from vacuum pumps to constriction bands, surgical implants, male hormone therapy, herbal supplements (ginkgo biloba, saw palmetto, L- arginine, and yohimbe), and even shock-wave therapy. Lifestyle changes include: increasing exercise, decrease smoking, losing weight, and eating healthier. More natural alternative treatments include acupuncture and watermelon juice. In her hilarious and informative book entitled Bonk, researcher Mary Roach explores coupling of science and sex, and dedicates a couple of chapters to in-depth analysis of erectile dysfunction treatments.
Pelvic floor PT is a proven and effective treatment for erectile dysfunction. A study in 2006 involved 146 men with mean age of 42 with pelvic pain; 92% of these men had sexual dysfunction. Treatment consisted of trigger point release and relaxation training, which led to improvement in symptoms by 77-87% – it’s notable that kegels were not part of this study.
On the other hand, in a landmark study by Grace Dorey in 2004 with male subjects with an average age of 55, it was concluded that adding pelvic floor contractions significantly improved erectile dysfunction at 3 month follow up.
In the end, open and honest communication with your therapist will yield the best course of action. If you do decide to try pelvic floor PT, a comprehensive evaluation will determine what exactly is going on with your muscles. They may be tight and weak or they could have poor coordination. So my advice for those suffering from erectile dysfunction is this: before you try kegels, make an appointment with your pelvic floor therapist.
- Anderson, R.U., D. Wise et al. (2006). The Journal of Urology. 176: 1534-1539.
- Dorey G. Randomised controlled trial of pelvic floor muscle exercises and moanometric feedback for erectile dysfunction. Br J Gen Pract. 2004 Nove 1; 54(508): 819-825.