Disorders of the Penis
The penis is one of the external structures of the male reproductive system.
The penis has three parts: the root, which attaches to the wall of the abdomen;
the body, or shaft; and the glans penis, which is the cone-shaped end (head).
The opening of the urethra, the tube that transports semen and urine, is at the
tip of the glans penis.
The body of the penis is cylindrical in shape and consists of three internal
chambers. These chambers are made up of special, sponge-like erectile tissue.
This tissue contains thousands of large caverns that fill with blood when the
man is sexually aroused. As the penis fills with blood, it becomes rigid and
erect, which allows for penetration during sexual intercourse. The skin of the
penis is loose and elastic to accommodate changes in penis size during an
Semen, which contains sperm (the male reproductive cells), is expelled
through the end of the penis when the man reaches sexual climax (orgasm).
Disorders of the penis can affect a man’s sexual functioning and fertility.
What disorders affect the penis?
Some disorders that affect the penis include the following:
Priapism is a persistent, often painful erection that can last from several
hours to a few days. The priapism erection is not associated with sexual
activity and is not relieved by orgasm. It occurs when blood flows into the
penis but is not adequately drained. Common causes of priapism include:
- Alcohol or drug abuse (especially cocaine)
- Certain medications, including some antidepressants and blood
- Spinal cord problems
- Injury to the genitals
- Penile injection therapy (a treatment for erectile dysfunction)
- Blood diseases, including leukemia and sickle cell anemia
Treatment for priapism is important, because a prolonged erection can scar
the penis if not treated. The goal of treatment is to relieve the erection and
preserve penile function. In most cases, treatment involves draining the blood
using a needle placed in the side of the penis. Medications that help shrink
blood vessels, which decreases blood flow to the penis, also may be used. In
rare cases, surgery may be required to avoid permanent damage to the penis. If
the condition is due to sickle cell disease, a blood transfusion may be
necessary. Treating any underlying medical condition or substance abuse
problem is important to preventing priapism.
Peyronie's disease is a condition in which a plaque, or hard lump, forms on
the penis. The plaque may develop on the upper (more common) or lower side of
the penis, in the layers that contain erectile tissue. The plaque often begins
as a localized area of irritation and swelling (inflammation), and can develop
into a hardened scar. The scarring reduces the elasticity of the penis in the
Peyronie's disease often occurs in a mild form that heals without treatment
in six to 15 months. In these cases, the problem does not progress past the
inflammation phase. In severe cases, the disease can last for years. The
hardened plaque reduces flexibility, causing pain and forcing the penis to
bend or arc during erection.
In addition to the bending of the penis, Peyronie’s disease can cause
general pain as well as painful erections. It also can cause emotional
distress, and affect a man’s desire and ability to function during sex.
The exact cause of Peyronie's disease is unknown. Cases that develop
quickly, last a short time and go away without treatment most often are due to
a trauma (hitting or bending) that causes bleeding inside the penis. Some
cases of Peyronie’s disease, however, develop slowly and are severe enough
to require surgical treatment. Other possible causes of Peyronie’s disease
- Vasculitis — This is an inflammation of blood or
lymphatic vessels. This inflammation can lead to the formation of scar
- Connective tissue disorders — According to the
National Institutes of Health, about 30 percent of men with Peyronie’s
disease also develop disorders that affect the connective tissue in other
parts of their bodies. These disorders generally cause a thickening or
hardening of the connective tissue. Connective tissue is specialized tissue—such
as cartilage, bone and skin—that acts to support other body tissues.
- Heredity — Some studies suggest that a man who has a
relative with Peyronie’s disease is at greater risk for developing the
Because the plaque of Peyronie's disease often shrinks or disappears
without treatment, most doctors suggest waiting one to two years or longer
before attempting to correct it with surgery. In many cases, surgery produces
positive results. But because complications can occur, and because many of the
problems associated with Peyronie's disease (for example, shortening of the
penis) are not corrected by surgery, most doctors prefer to perform surgery
only on men with curvatures so severe that sexual intercourse is impossible.
There are two surgical techniques used to treat Peyronie’s disease. One
method involves the removal of the plaque followed by placement of a patch of
skin or artificial material (skin graft). With the second technique, the
surgeon removes or pinches the tissue from the side of the penis opposite the
plaque, which cancels out the bending effect. The first method can involve
partial loss of erectile function, especially rigidity. The second method,
known as the Nesbit procedure, causes a shortening of the erect penis.
A non-surgical treatment for Peyronie’s disease involves injecting
medication directly into the plaque in an attempt to soften the affected
tissue, decrease the pain and correct the curvature of the penis. Penile
implants can be used in cases where Peyronie’s disease has affected the man’s
ability to achieve or maintain an erection.
Balanitis is an inflammation of the skin covering the head of the penis. A
similar condition, balanoposthitis, refers to inflammation of the head and the
foreskin. Symptoms of balanitis include redness or swelling, itching, rash,
pain and a foul-smelling discharge.
Balanitis most often occurs in men and boys who have not been circumcised
(had their foreskin surgically removed), and who have poor hygiene.
Inflammation can occur if the sensitive skin under the foreskin is not washed
regularly, allowing sweat, debris, dead skin and bacteria to collect under the
foreskin and cause irritation. The presence of tight foreskin may make it
difficult to keep this area clean and can lead to irritation by a
foul-smelling substance (smegma) that can accumulate under the foreskin.
Other causes may include:
- Dermatitis/allergy — Dermatitis is an inflammation of
the skin, often caused by an irritating substance or a contact allergy.
Sensitivity to chemicals in certain products—such as soaps, detergents,
perfumes and spermicides—can cause an allergic reaction, including
irritation, itching and a rash.
- Infection — Infection with the yeast candida
albicans (thrush) can result in an itchy, spotty rash. Certain sexually
transmitted diseases—including gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis—can
produce symptoms of balanitis.
In addition, men with diabetes are at greater risk for balanitis. Glucose
(sugar) in the urine that is trapped under the foreskin serves as a breeding
ground for bacteria.
Persistent inflammation of the penis head and foreskin can result in
scarring, which can cause a tightening of the foreskin (phimosis) and a
narrowing of the urethra (tube that drains urine from the bladder).
Inflammation also can lead to swelling of the foreskin, which can cause injury
to the penis.
Treatment for balanitis depends on the underlying cause. If there is an
infection, treatment will include an appropriate antibiotic or antifungal
medication. In cases of severe or persistent inflammation, a circumcision may
Taking appropriate hygiene measures can help prevent future bouts of
balanitis. In addition, it is important to avoid strong soaps or chemicals,
especially those known to cause a skin reaction.
Phimosis and paraphimosis
Phimosis is a condition in which the foreskin of the penis is so tight that
it cannot be pulled back (retracted) to reveal the head of the penis.
Paraphimosis occurs when the foreskin, once retracted, cannot return to its
Phimosis, which is seen most often in children, may be present at birth. It
also can be caused by an infection, or by scar tissue that formed as a result
of injury or chronic inflammation. Another cause of phimosis is balanitis,
which leads to scarring and tightness of the foreskin. Immediate medical
attention is necessary if the condition makes urination difficult or
Paraphimosis is a medical emergency that can cause serious complications if
not treated. Paraphimosis may occur after an erection or sexual activity, or
as the result of injury to the head of the penis. With paraphimosis, the
foreskin becomes stuck behind the ridge of the head of the penis. If this
condition is prolonged, it can cause pain and swelling, and impair blood flow
to the penis. In extreme cases, the lack of blood flow can result in the death
of tissue (gangrene), and amputation of the penis may be necessary.
Treatment of phimosis may include gentle, manual stretching of the foreskin
over a period of time. Sometimes, the foreskin can be loosened with medication
applied to the penis. Circumcision, the surgical removal of the foreskin,
often is used to treat phimosis. Another surgical procedure, called
preputioplasty, involves separating the foreskin from the glans. This
procedure preserves the foreskin and is less traumatic than circumcision.
Treatment of paraphimosis focuses on reducing the swelling of the glans and
foreskin. Applying ice may help reduce swelling, as may applying pressure to
the glans to force out blood and fluid. If these measures fail to reduce
swelling and allow the foreskin to return to its normal position, an injection
of medication to help drain the penis may be necessary. In severe cases, a
surgeon may make small cuts in the foreskin to release it. Circumcision also
may be used as a treatment for paraphimosis.
A rare form of cancer, penile cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the
penis divide and grow uncontrolled. Certain benign (non-cancerous) tumors may
progress and become cancer.
The exact cause of penile cancer is not known, but there are certain risk
factors for the disease. A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s
chance of getting a disease. The risk factors for cancer of the penis may
include the following:
- Circumcision—Men who are not circumcised at birth have
a higher risk for getting cancer of the penis.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection—HPVs are a group
of more than 70 types of viruses that can cause warts (papillomas). Certain
types of HPVs can infect the reproductive organs and the anal area. These
types of HPVs are passed from one person to another during sexual contact.
- Smoking—Smoking exposes the body to many
cancer-causing chemicals that affect more than the lungs.
- Smegma—Oily secretions from the skin can accumulate
under the foreskin of the penis. The result is a thick, bad-smelling
substance called smegma. If the penis is not cleaned thoroughly, the
presence of smegma can cause irritation and inflammation.
- Phimosis—This is a condition in which the foreskin
becomes constricted and difficult to retract.
- Treatment for psoriasis—The skin disease psoriasis is
sometimes treated with a combination of medication and exposure to
- Age—Most cases of penile cancer occur in men over age
Symptoms of penile cancer include growths or sores on the penis, abnormal
discharge from the penis and bleeding. Surgery to remove the cancer is the
most common treatment for penile cancer. A doctor may take out the cancer
using one of the following operations:
- Wide local excision takes out only the cancer and some
normal tissue on either side.
- Microsurgery is an operation that removes the cancer and
as little normal tissue as possible. During this surgery, the doctor uses a
microscope to look at the cancerous area to make sure all the cancer cells
- Laser surgery uses a narrow beam of light to remove
- Circumcision is an operation that removes the foreskin.
- Amputation of the penis (penectomy) is an operation that
removes the penis. It is the most common and most effective treatment of
cancer of the penis. In a partial penectomy, part of the penis is removed.
In a total penectomy, the whole penis is removed. Lymph nodes in the groin
may be taken out during surgery.
Radiation, which uses high-energy rays to attack cancer, and chemotherapy,
which uses drugs to kill cancer, are other treatment options.
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