FRIDAY, Nov. 29 (HealthDay News) -- A new study suggests that
thousands of men seek care in U.S. emergency rooms each year for
the painful condition known as priapism -- an erection that lasts
too long and threatens to permanently harm the penis.
The researchers estimated that it costs $124 million a year on
average to treat priapism at hospitals.
"We're not talking about a massive problem, but it's more common than we thought," said study author Dr. Daniel Stein, chief resident with the urology department at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
It's not clear how many of an estimated 10,000 cases annually
are due to a side effect of Viagra and similar impotence drugs, but
urologists say they've seen very few men suffering from the
infamous four-hour-plus erections that TV ads warn about. Sickle
cell disease actually may be responsible for a much higher number
Stein said the researchers launched their study because there's
little information about the number of cases of priapism, which has
gotten more attention in recent years because of the warnings
related to impotence drugs.
Priapism refers to an abnormal erection in which the blood that
engorges the penis fails to drain out, Stein said. Blood stagnates
in the penis, and tissue begins to die because it's not getting
"The mood is gone, but the reaction is still there," he said. "It's remarkably painful. All men coming in with priapism are unhappy about it."
In the new study, researchers examined a database of U.S.
emergency room visits from 2006 to 2009. Based on their statistics,
they estimated that ER doctors treat an average of 10,000 cases of
priapism each year; it's not clear how many are men who needed to
be treated more than once.
The average hospital cost to treat a patient was about $1,800
for patients treated in the ER and nearly $42,000 for those who had
to be hospitalized.
Twenty-one percent of the patients also had sickle cell disease,
in which red blood cells become deformed. The condition can cause
the blood in the penis to thicken and not be able to drain, said
Dr. Stephen Freedland, a urologist and associate professor of
surgery and pathology at the Duke University School of
Although his clinic may see a case of priapism an average of
once per week, Freedland said he can't easily recall treating a
case caused by an erectile dysfunction drug like Viagra.
Study author Stein said the drugs can sometimes cause erections
that last too long by boosting the blood flow into the penis.
Another possible cause is an injection that some impotent men
give themselves to have an erection, Freedland said.
Stein also said there's no apparent cause at all in some
The good news: Priapism can be treated. The bad news: The
treatments are anything but comfortable. A blood sample is taken
from the penis to confirm that a patient is suffering from
priapism, Stein said. The next step is typically to put a needle
into the penis and try to flush out the stagnant blood.
If that doesn't work, physicians may try flushing out the blood
again and perhaps move onto a procedure that cuts into the penis to
release the blood, he said.
Freedland said another treatment is to give the patient oxygen
and fresh blood cells to get things moving.
The study appeared in the October issue of
The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
The American Urological Association has more details on
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