The inability to “get it up” is a common bedroom woe that plagues many men in times of intimacy. Treatments for erectile dysfunction (ED) range from "the blue pill" to an inflatable penis pump, but these alternatives don't always work, especially for cancer survivors or wounded soldiers. Now, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison believe a heat-activated memory metal, Nitinol, will create a better penile implant for men with ED.

“It’s a survivorship issue – restoring function can help people feel whole in their bodies again,” said Brian Le, a new faculty member in the Department of Urology with a background in materials science, about the implant, in a statement.

Read More: Men Who Turn To Penile Implants To Treat Erectile Dysfunction Usually End Up Happier

Le and his colleagues used a heat-activated exoskeleton of nitinol, a metal known for its superelastic properties, and already in use in medical devices used for endovascular surgery, to help the penis expand in length and girth. The prosthetic penis contracts when it’s cooled back to body temperature.

In the study, published in the journal Urology, the researchers found the memory metal did well on mechanical testing. The findings demonstrated the coil (the implant) can become rigid if heated with hot water, such as taking a shower. The nitinol implant can be inserted via a simple operation, and remain flaccid at body temperature. However, it can "remember" an expanded shape and return to that shape when heated, causing an erection.

“We’re hoping that, with a better device, a better patient experience, and a simpler surgery, more urologists would perform this operation, and more patients would want to try the device,” said Le.

Currently, the researchers are working on developing a remote-control device that can be waved over the penis, using induction to heat the metal a few degrees above body temperature, and ratcheting open the alloy prosthesis to expand the penis in length and girth.

There is one caveat — men who opt for the penile implant would get an erection every time they bathe. A cold wet towel placed on the groin can make it flaccid again. However, this could become an inconvenience, and awkward for the patient.

Currently, the widely-used internal penis implant involves a reservoir of water and a pump, which can be uncomfortable to use, and bring a variety of complications. The penis pump consists of two cylinders — a reservoir and a pump, which are surgically placed in the body. The two cylinders are inserted in the penis and connected by tubing to a separate reservoir of fluid. The reservoir is implanted under the groin muscles. There’s also a pump connected to the system, which sits under the loose skin of the scrotal sac, between the testicles.

Pressing on the pump inflates the prosthesis, and allows the pump to transfer fluid from the the reservoir to the cylinders in the penis, inflating them. Pressing on a deflation valve at the base of the pump, allows the fluid to return to the reservoir, deflating the penis. However, penis implants can go horribly wrong.

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In 2013, Daniel Metzger, 44, was left with a permanent erection for eight months and a scrotum the size of a volleyball after a penile implant surgery gone awry. The implant was comprised of inflatable cylinders inside the shaft of the penis, a fluid reservoir under the abdominal wall and a pump inside the scrotum. Metzgar said he has gotten a replacement prosthesis from another doctor and, although the new implant works, he has lost a great deal of sensation because of his previous doctor’s botched job.

Penis implants are recommended when there’s a clear medical cause for ED, and when the problem is unlikely to be resolved naturally, or with other medical treatments.

In most cases, erectile dysfunction is caused by something physical, and can be a sign of an underlying disorder like diabetes or hypertension, according to the Mayo Clinic. In younger men, erection problems are often the first symptom of cardiovascular disease. If it’s a psychological issue, urologists will refer their patients to a therapist. Adopting healthier habits can help improve overall well-being and restore erectile function if treatable.

A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found men with ED could improve their erections by losing weight, improving their diet, and exercising on a regular basis. After two years, the group lost an average of 33 pounds, and were more physically active; about one-third of them had seen a significant improvement in sexual function.

In the U.S., about five percent of men that are 40 years old, have complete ED, and this number increases to about 15 percent of men at age 70. Mild and moderate ED affects approximately 10 percent of men per decade. ED can occur at any age, but it is more common in men that are older.

Le estimates that if his line of research continues to meet its milestones, it could come to market in five to 10 years.

Source: Le J, McVary K, McKenna K. A Novel Thermal-activated Shape Memory Penile Prosthesis: Comparative Mechanical Testing. Urology. 2017.

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The Truth About Penis Enlargement

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