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A prolonged erection that, if left untreated, can damage the penis. It's definitely no joke.
Priapism can affect men of all ages but the risk is very small, although it's slightly greater for men with an underlying blood disorder (e.g. sickle cell anaemia) or those who are using injection treatments for erectile dysfunction (impotence).
Most cases (60%) are idiopathic (i.e. the cause is unknown). The remaining 40% of cases are usually caused by:
You need to see a doctor as soon as you think there is a problem (i.e. if your erection hasn't disappeared after four hours). The visit will involve a physical examination and questions about any drugs you have been taking. The doctor may also take a blood gas measurement of the blood from the penis. This provides a clue as to how long the condition has been present and how much damage has occurred. A small needle is placed in the penis and blood is collected.
If a patient gets treatment within four to six hours, the erection can almost always be reduced with medication. Decongestants can reduce the flow of blood to the penis.
If this fails, the old blood can be released from the penis through a small needle. The area will be cleaned first and numbed with a local anaesthetic.
If this treatment is performed in the first few hours, it may be all that is needed to correct the problem. However, if the erection persists or recurs, you will be given drugs that cause the blood vessels to constrict to prevent priapism.
If this is unsuccessful a minor surgical operation called shunting can be performed. This allows blood to drain from the erectile tissue into the glans and other tissues. As this procedure can result in permanent and irreversible impotence, it is essential that you go to your doctor as soon as you think you may have a problem. If necessary, go to the nearest accident and emergency department.
The most important thing to do is to seek medical help quickly. However, putting ice-packs on your penis can ease the pain of priapism. Running up and down stairs or using an exercise bicycle might also be worth a try.
Providing that the priapism is dealt with quickly the outlook is very good. After prolonged priapism there is a very real risk of permanent impotence.
Don't waste time contacting organisations or surfing the web: see a doctor as soon as possible.
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Date of last review 02/04/14
Date of next review 02/04/17