Penile Implants: A Treatment for Impotence
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Penile Implants: A Treatment for Impotence

When other treatments for impotence are ineffective, unsatisfactory, or cumbersome, men turn to penile implants. Whether impotent because of diabetes, radiation therapy, prostate surgery, or another physical cause, a surgical implant can help men regain the ability to perform in the bedroom and to have greater control over their erections.

Types of Implants

Implants come in two main categories. The simplest, called a semi-rigid or nonhydraulic implant, consists of a pair of silicone rods. They are bendable, yet stiff enough to allow penetration. Some varieties contain a steel cable or coiled wire running through the center of each rod.

To initiate sex, the penis is simply lifted to position with the rods straight out. Of all the implants, these are the easiest to use, have the fewest moving parts, and are the least expensive. However, with this type of implant, the penis is always semi-erect and has to be tucked under tight clothing, because it may be visible. Unlike with a natural erection, neither the length nor width of the penis is increased. Yet, some men don't mind these limitations.

The second, more complex, type of implant is a pair of hollow, inflatable (hydraulic) cylinders that come as a one-, two-, or three-piece unit. These devices, made of silicone or polyurethane, are best suited for men who are highly motivated and have good dexterity.

The one-piece, or self-contained device, is a neat little package with a pump at one end and a reservoir at the other. The entire unit is housed in the penis. To get an erection, you simply pump the front of the cylinder, allowing saline solution to move out of the reservoir into the hollow rods. By bending the penis down for a few seconds after intercourse, the erection softens as fluid returns to the reservoir.

In the two-piece implant, a pump and reservoir are placed in the scrotum. With the three-piece device, only the pump is inserted in the scrotum; the reservoir is placed in the abdomen. It's this latter, very complex implant that most closely mimics a natural erection. When stiff, the penis is firmer than with the other implants, and when flaccid, it's softer and easier to conceal.

When using a three-piece inflatable, all a man has to do is squeeze the pump forcing fluid from the reservoir through the connecting tubes to fill the penile cylinders, producing an erection. With pump in hand, a man has control over when and how long he'll have an erection. To some extent, both the length and width expand, as they do in a natural erection. Pressing a release valve in the scrotum (at the base of the pump) sends the fluid back to the reservoir; the penis softens as it normally would.

No one implant is good for every man. A urologist can provide you with all the various options based on an array of factors, including your specific anatomy and needs.

The Bottom Line: Cost and Surgical Procedures

These procedures, which can be expensive, are typically performed under general, spinal, or epidural anesthesia. Depending on the implant, the procedure takes from 30 minutes to two hours. The urologist will decide precisely where to make the incisions based on the type of device inserted.

A small cut may be made either under the head of the penis or between the penis and scrotum. After deciding on the appropriate implant size, the doctor places the implant components in the two chambers of the penile shaft that would normally fill with blood during an erection. That's the end of the surgery, unless the implant requires the additional placement of a reservoir and pump.

In that case, another cut is placed in the abdomen so that the reservoir can be positioned at the base of the pelvis. If an incision was made between the penis and scrotum, the pump can be passed into the scrotum through this point. The penis is usually taped to the abdomen until the incision heals and a tube or catheter will be inserted to drain the bladder.

Depending on the type of implant, anesthesia, and whether there are complications, your hospital stay may last from a single day to one week . Postoperative pain can last for 1-2 months—your urologist will suggest appropriate pain medication.

After the Surgery

As the incision heals, the hard ridge of tissue that forms will eventually fade away. You'll probably see your urologist several times after the surgery and then at six-month or yearly intervals thereafter. You'll be instructed to call the office if you develop worsening pain, swelling, redness, or problems with urination.

Expect to resume your normal everyday activities over the course of 3-6 weeks, though some men return to work after a few days. Your urologist will probably tell you to avoid strenuous physical activity for 4-6 weeks postsurgery. Don't even think about a test-run sex session until you're completely healed, which can take four weeks or longer. The doctor will tell you when it's safe—otherwise you risk pain and infection.

None of the implants affect your ability to ejaculate or have an orgasm. Rarely, some men end up with persistent pain or a loss of sensation in the penis. Many men are surprised to learn that with an implant their erection does not appear as it once was; it's often shorter or it may not be as rigid. Also, the flaccid penis isn't quite as relaxed as it used to be. But these outcomes generally depend on the type of implant used and how well you heal.

Potential Risks

No surgery is without its risks, and that includes implant procedures. In a very small percentage of cases, the wound can become infected, although this is less likely with newer devices. While implants have gotten more reliable over the years—tubing is kink-resistant and the connectors and reservoir are seamless—a variety of problems may still arise.

About 5% of the malleable or semi-rigid implants fail, while 10% of the three-piece hydraulics malfunction over five years. In general, the more complex the implant, the greater the likelihood there will be mechanical problems. The fluid can leak out and, though saline solution presents no medical risk, a second operation is necessary because without saline, the implant won't inflate.

Sometimes the reservoir or pump may protrude through the skin. Occasionally, the unit will auto-inflate or deflate without warning. Or, the healthy tissue adjacent to the implants may break down. Men should accept that there's a chance they might need to undergo a second operation either to remove the implant or have another one inserted. It's hard to say how long an implant will last, because, as with any medical device, there's ongoing wear and tear.

Silicone penile implants, though solid and not gel-like, carry the same risks inherent in silicone breast implants. There have been reports that silicone particles, shed from the implant, can migrate to other parts of the body. But, there are little data to confirm silicon-related health problems associated with these devices.

Think carefully about an implant because they are generally irreversible. The penile chambers are permanently altered by the device, making it unlikely that natural erections could ever return. Despite the risks, more than 80%-90% of patients and 70%-80% of their partners are satisfied with the decision to get an implant. For many men, implants mean a renewed confidence in their ability to perform.

RESOURCES:

American Diabetes Association
http://www.diabetes.org/home.jsp/

Urology Health.org
http://www.urologyhealth.org/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Diabetes Association
http://www.diabetes.ca/

Canadian Urological Association
http://www.cua.org/

References:

Campbell MF, Wein AJ, Kavoussi LR, et al, eds. Campbell-Walsh Urology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007.

New strategies for solving impotence. The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter. June 1997.

New name, treatments for impotence. HealthNews. December 1996.

No need to suffer in secret. Harvard Health Letter. May 1996.

Wolter CE, Hellstrom JG. The hydrophilic-coated penile prosthesis: 1-year experience. J Sex Med. 2004;1:221-224.



Last reviewed September 2008 by Adrienne Carmack, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


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