DEAR DOCTOR K:
Is acupuncture an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction?
During an erection, arteries supplying blood widen, and veins leading blood away from the penis clamp down. As a result, more blood is inside the penis, causing it to swell and become firm. It sounds simple, but getting to an erection requires extraordinary orchestration of blood vessels, nerves, hormones and, of course, the psyche. Here is an illustration of this process:
A hitch in any one of these elements can prevent an erection from happening. Sildenafil (Viagra) and similar drugs have revolutionized the treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED). ED is trouble achieving or maintaining an erection. These drugs provide effective and safe treatment for about 70 percent of men with ED.
But that still leaves a lot of men with ED who don’t respond to these pills. Other men do not want to use medication, or they can’t use ED drugs because of side effects or other medical conditions.
One non-drug treatment used for ED is acupuncture, the ancient Chinese practice in which a practitioner inserts hair-thin needles into specific sites along the body’s “meridians.” According to traditional beliefs, the body’s Qi (pronounced “chee”), or vital force, flows along these meridians. By stimulating specific acupoints, the practitioner aims to restore the proper flow of energy in the body. In treating ED, the acupuncture needles are placed in the wall of the abdomen.
Western scientists have a different explanation. They speculate that the needles stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Other theories claim the needles release neurotransmitters, chemicals that carry messages between nerve endings.
Unfortunately, there just hasn’t been enough good research to determine if acupuncture is useful for ED. But there are other non-drug options. Ask your doctor about penile injections, urethral suppositories or a vacuum pump.
And don’t neglect lifestyle changes that can preserve or improve erectile function. These changes include smoking cessation, weight control, regular exercise and moderate alcohol use. Smoking causes disease of the arteries that supply blood to the penis. Being overweight and not exercising regularly increases your risk of diabetes. Diabetes, in turn, damages the nerves that control the blood vessel changes that lead to an erection. Excessive use of alcohol also damages these nerves.
There are more studies of acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain. Some scientists point to studies that compare acupuncture to “sham acupuncture,” in which the needles are deliberately not placed properly. Such studies sometimes find that both real and sham acupuncture relieve pain. This suggests to them that acupuncture may work by causing a placebo effect.
Whether this is true or not, what matters to patients is that their condition has been improved. Some of my patients have had good relief of their pain.
As for acupuncture to treat erectile dysfunction, if you’d like to give it a try, go ahead. Be sure to seek out an experienced acupuncturist. And remember that it can be time-consuming and expensive. But in experienced hands, it is safe.