by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. Medical Editor updated 7/2019
Erectile dysfunction is the most common side effect after prostate cancer treatment irrespective of precision dose and delivery of radiation therapy or the nerves were spared during surgery. Sexual dysfunction occurs because the nerves and blood vessels that control the physical aspect of an erection are incredibly delicate, and any trauma or stress to them can result in temporary or permanent damage.
Within one year after treatment, most men with intact nerves that were not significantly damaged will see a substantial improvement in sexual function. The skill of your surgeon or radiation oncologist can have a significant impact on long term sexual function, so it’s important to select your treatment and team very carefully.
When selecting treatment make sure your doctor explains the type and probability of side effect from their treatment facility. Sometimes treatment selection will depend on which side effects are most tolerable for you age and lifestyle.
Age, obesity and the ability to spare the nerves are the major determinants of the type and severity of side effects. In general, it is more challenging to spare the nerves in men with higher risk disease because the prostate cancer may have already spread past the nerves outside the prostate capsule.
There are four main ways that prostate cancer treatment affects erectile function:
- Sex drive or “libido” Any treatment that decreases your testosterone level diminishes your sex drive. You can have a low libido and still obtain an erection, but it is usually more difficult for men
who have less interest in sex. Hormone therapy and surgical orchiectomy both decrease testosterone production. The former is reversible, and the latter is not.
- Achieving a mechanical erection is controlled by the nerves and vessels that associated with the prostate and structures near the penis. Damage to these nerves and blood vessels during surgery or radiation can prevent and individual from maintaining the mechanical ability to have an erection.
- Orgasm. Attaining an orgasm can also be more difficult after treatment when sex drive is low, or erections are not as firm. Some men will experience discomfort initially after treatment during climax, but this usually resolves.
- Ejaculation may be minimal after treatment. The prostate gland and seminal vesicles which produce the ejaculate were removed and/or treated with radiation, so it is common to have a minimal or no ejaculate. An orgasm is different than ejaculation, men may be able to have an erection and reach an orgasm, however nothing may come out.
Prostatectomy: Most men offered surgery are treated with a “nerve sparing prostatectomy.” The surgery is typically performed by a Urologist and removes the prostate gland and seminal vesicles while sparing the nerves adjacent to the prostate. Approximately 50% of men who were able to have an erection before surgery will ultimately be able to have an erection after prostatectomy.
Radiation therapy: Damage to blood vessels and nerves can also occur after radiation therapy resulting in decreased erectile function over time. Most reports suggest that approximately 70% of men who have baseline erectile function before treatment will keep erectile function after treatment.
Radiation therapy however appears to have a slower delay in erectile function decline than surgery. By15 years after radiation treatment, the rates of erectile dysfunction are similar to men who underwent surgery.
Management of Erectile Function
There are several ways to improve erectile function following treatment of prostate cancer and each should be discussed with your physician to understand which represents the best option for you.
Erectile Dysfunction Medications Viagra® (sildenafil), Cialis® (tadalafil), and Levitra® (vardenafil) work by relaxing the muscles in the penis which allows blood to rapidly flow to achieve an erection. About 75% of men who undergo nerve-sparing prostatectomy or radiation therapy can successfully achieve erections with these medications.
Muse®(Alprostadil) is a medicated pellet about half the size of a grain of rice that when inserted into the urethra through the opening at the tip of the penis stimulates blood flow into the penis. About 40% of men have reported successfully achieving erections after using this drug.
Mechanical Devices are another solution that may work for individuals unable to use medications to help improve erectile function, or as an adjunct to medications.
- Vacuum pump: by forcing blood into the penis using a vacuum seal a vacuum pump can create an erection “mechanically.” Because the blood starts to flow back out once the vacuum seal is broken, a rubber ring is rolled onto the base of the penis, which constricts it sufficiently so that the blood does not escape. Because of this effect, it is crucial that the ring be removed immediately after intercourse, or the tissue can be damaged due to lack of flowing oxygen. About 75% of men find this device successful.
- Surgically inserted penile implants consist of a narrow, flexible plastic tube, a small balloon-like structure and a release button. The penis remains flaccid until an erection is desired – the release button is pressed and fluid from the balloon fills the tube, pulling the penis up and creating an erection.
2 Kowalczyk KJ, Levy JM, Caplan CF, et al. Temporal national trends of minimally invasive and retropubic radical prostatectomy outcomes from 2003 to 2007: Results from the 100% Medicare Sample. European Urology. 2012; 61: 803-809.
3 Lowrance WT, Elkin EB, Jacks LM, et al. Comparative effectiveness of prostate cancer surgical treatments: A population based analysis of postoperative outcomes. Journal of Urology. 2010 Apr;183(4):1366-72