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    Erectile Dysfunction as Warning Sign

    Impotence isn't a deadly disease, but it can signal other deadly health problems.

    Missed Signals continued...

    Multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries are diseases of the nervous system that can cause impotence, although impotence is not one of the main symptoms of either disease.

    Sometimes men who abuse alcohol and drugs that depress the central nervous system may find themselves unable to achieve erections, too.

    About 90% of the time, the cause of erectile dysfunction is physical. But erectile dysfunction can also be caused by psychological problems such as stress or performance anxiety. Men whose erectile dysfunction is mainly a psychological problem are able to get an adequate erection but not when they want to.

    The classic test to find out whether the problem is psychological or physical is to measure "nocturnal tumescence." This involves wrapping a strip of paper or tape around the flaccid penis at night. If the strip is broken in the morning, an erection likely occurred during sleep and impotence is most likely a psychological one.

    When the problem is psychological, the underlying depression or anxiety is what should be treated.

    Lifetime Piling Up

    Erectile dysfunction seems to have become the proverbial canary in a coal mine, especially for older men. That's because it can be caused by any combination of various health problems that strike men later in life.

    Men who might not otherwise be diagnosed with something potentially fatal may become aware of the problem when they go to the doctor seeking a prescription.

    That's one argument doctors may bring up if drug companies ever lobby to make erectile dysfunction drugs available over the counter. Impotence isn't a problem that exists in a vacuum; and although the drugs to treat it appear to be safe for most men, doctors believe they need to keep a close eye on those who are taking them.

    Sharlip says he thinks it's dangerous to take your doctor out of the loop by buying Viagra on the Internet, for example. "Internet acquisition of these drugs is the same thing as over-the-counter," he says. "They say there's a physician that's overseeing it, but there's no physician overseeing it very carefully."

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    Reviewed on December 22, 2003

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