Shocking the penis with sound waves may help those who have severe erectile dysfunction that has not respond well to drug treatments, a new study finds.
Among men in the study, "extracorporeal shock wave therapy" significantly improved sexual function, the researchers said. The patients continued to see improvements two months after the treatment had stopped, and close to 30 percent of them achieved normal sexual function and no longer required medications.
Extracorporeal shock waves have been used to break up kidney stones, but the sound waves used in the study to treat erectile dysfunction (ED) were much less intense, the researchers said. No men reported pain or adverse events during treatment.
The findings suggest sound wave therapy may used to treat ED patients who don't respond well to conventional therapies. However, the study was small, involving only 29 men, and the results may have been due to a placebo effect, so more work is needed to validate the findings, the researchers said.
Shock waves for ED
Low-intensity sound waves have been found to improve blood flow to the heart by inducing blood vessel growth. The researchers speculated such waves also might improve blood flow to the penis.
An earlier study showed extracorporeal shock wave therapy benefitted men with mild to moderate ED. The new study included patients with more-severe ED, whose condition did not improve after taking drugs.
The average age of the men in the study was 61. Participants underwent 12 shock treatments over nine weeks. One month after the last treatment, participants began taking ED drugs.
Participants filled out a questionnaire to assess their sexual function. Scores ranged from 6 to 30, with scores lower than 10 indicating severe ED, and scores from 26 to 30 indicating normal erectile function.
The average score at the beginning of the study was 8.8. Two months after the treatment stopped, the average increased 10 points. For many men, this means the difference between being able and being unable to achieve vaginal penetration, said study researcher Ilan Gruenwald, associate director of the neuro-urology unit at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel.
Eight men achieved normal sexual function.
On average, men started to see a benefit three weeks after treatment.
The treatment used for ED in this study is definitely novel, said Dr. Andrew Kramer, a urologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. The results are somewhat counterintuitive, Kramer observed, considering that sound waves used in kidney stone treatments are designed to be destructive.
"It's like saying, take your penis and hit it with a hammer a couple of times," Kramer said.
Even if the benefits of extracorporeal shock wave therapy are confirmed by future research, the therapy may never be mainstream, Kramer said. For one reason, it requires a special machine.
The researchers acknowledged their work is preliminary, but, given their results, they said they hope others in their field remain open-minded about the therapy.
The study was published online Oct. 18 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Pass it on: Shock wave therapy may benefit patients with severe ED who do not respond to drugs.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.