What is Priapism?

In Greek mythology, the god of fertility was named Priapus. He was always depicted as having a permanent exaggerated erection. In a nod to classical mythology, doctors named the condition of continual erection Priapism after the Greek god.

This condition is actually misnamed since priapism has nothing to do with sex and is incredibly painful. Blood flow to the penis helps a man get and maintain an erection. When the penis goes flaccid, blood has left the organ. In priapism, the blood remains in the penis and does not flow back out. There are many causes for priapism, including black widow spider bites, cocaine, marijuana, drug abuse of prescription medications such as Thorazine, sickle cell anemia, carbon monoxide poisoning and injury to the spine.

What are the Symptoms of Priapism?

There are three types of priapism which have slightly different symptoms.

Ischemic or low-flow priapism causes a painful, rigid erection lasting more than four hours. If the penis does not go flaccid within four hours, call an ambulance.

Non-ischemic or high-flow priapism is considered not as painful or rigid as low-flow priapism. Even a painless erection lasting more than four hours still warrants a trip to the hospital.

Stuttering priapism is a series of prolonged erections but the penis does go flaccid in between erections. The erections usually occur spontaneously and not due to sexual arousal. This also can be quite painful as well as quite embarrassing.

How is Priapism Treated?

If left untreated, priapism can cause permanent damage to the penis.

Place ice bags or a cold compress on the erection to help reduce pain and swelling while waiting for doctors to treat the patient. Do not place the ice directly onto the skin as this will cause cold burns.

Patients are given blood tests, drug tests physical exam of the genitals and abdomen help doctors determine what type of priapism the man suffers from and its probable cause. A medication like phenylephrine is injected into the penis to help the blood move out of the penis.

More drastic steps include doctors giving the patient an anesthetic and withdrawing blood from the penis with a needle and surgery.

Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
August 30, 2017