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How Do Erections Work?

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 10/6/2021

Because erections are easy to come by, the process of getting it up can easily be taken for granted. It can be like breathing.

This is especially true when, without thinking too deeply about it, you get excited in the presence of someone you’re attracted to. 

The same goes for those not-as-fun moments where you stiffen for what appears to be no reason at all when going about your day.

However, while erections can come as easily as walking or taking a bite of delicious pizza, the changes your body undergoes to switch from soft and flaccid, to roaring-to-go make for a complex and interesting event.

Read on to learn how erections work, including a look at the parts involved to ensure you’re able to achieve one. An erection when you want one can be a key factor in your quality of life.

The Anatomy of a Penis

Erections are a familiar part of your sex life and key sign of sexual desire. Here’s more about what helps keep your erection firm enough to engage in satisfying sexual intercourse.

According to Anatomy, Abdomen and Pelvis, Penis, the following common parts are what make up the magic of erections:

  • The shaft: which contains the urethra, a duct that permits urination. It also encloses three cylindrical chambers: the corpora cavernosa (which is actually two chambers — see below) and corpus spongiosum.

  • The head: aka the tip or glans — which is usually the most sensitive part of the penis. It contains an opening for semen, pre-ejaculate (pre-cum) and urine to pass through. In uncircumcised men, this part is usually enclosed in a foreskin.

  • The corpora cavernosa: which includes a pair of spongy erectile tissues that run along the sides of your penis. Blood rushes to this spongy tissue during sexual arousal and forms an erection.

  • Tunica albuginea: A membrane that is inside of the penis surrounding the corpora cavernosa. This part of the penis helps trap blood into the corpora cavernosa, promoting the sustainability of an erection. 

  • Corpus spongiosum: which is made up of erectile tissue that houses the urethra. It also fills with blood to ensure the formation of erections.

A maze of blood vessels, connective tissue and nerves also make up the penis.

So, What is an Erection and How Does it Work?

From a non-technical standpoint, erections are the direct result of some sexual stimulation that takes you from a relaxed point A, to a strong and excited point B.

However, while things may appear simple on the surface — penile erections aren’t exactly a flip-switch reaction. 

In fact, this process is the result of a fast-paced series of events that require the teamwork of blood vessels, erectile tissues, nerves, gases and other moving parts.

Following a sexually stimulating encounter, the body engages in a release of nitric oxide which helps to relax smooth muscles in the penis, according to the book, Erectile Dysfunction. 

This relaxation allows for increased blood flow into the penis, which is necessary to get the ball rolling for an erect penis. 

In cases when an insufficient amount of blood fills the penis, this can affect your expectations, and the satisfaction derived from intercourse. (In other words, you may not get hard.)

To allow for this necessary relaxation, nitric oxide stimulates the production of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) — which helps induce the smooth muscles to relax by closing calcium channels within the penis. Low calcium levels force the penile muscles to relax.

The blood sourced from this relaxation of the smooth muscles flows into the corpora cavernosa which you'll remember, are two cylindrical tissues within the penis. 

Research in Physiology, Erection says that this process increases blood flow within the penis by almost 20 to 40 times its usual amount. 

When these cylinders are full, their weight compresses veins within the penis, reducing the chances of blood flowing out of it. 

The increased blood pressure encourages the penis to become rigid, forming an erection. 

To prompt the penis later return to a flaccid state, the body produces an enzyme known as phosphodiesterase. This enzyme degrades cGMP, redirecting blood out of the penis to other parts of the body.

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Ejaculation: How it Works

While ejaculations and orgasms occur simultaneously or very shortly apart from each other, these experiences are not one and the same.

Orgasms are a mental and emotional event: Think back to that nice and tingly sensation you felt around the time your last sexual encounter ended. 

In comparison, ejaculation is a physical occurrence that requires the ejection of seminal fluid (sperm) from the urethra. 

This process is a reflex action controlled by the central nervous system.

When you reach climax and ejaculate, your body goes through two phases:

Emission

According to an article in the Journal of Reproductive Systems, emission occurs when the internal penile muscles contract to bring the ejaculate (sperm) to the urethra.

The very first phase of this process ensures that the bladder neck is closed to prevent the seminal fluid (a liquid that helps with transporting sperm) from spilling into the bladder, according to an article in Translational Andrology and Urology

The sperm that will eventually be ejaculated is produced by the vas deferens (tubes that store and transport sperm from the testes).

Ejection

As the very obvious name suggests, ejection refers to the expulsion of sperm from the urethra followed by its exit from the penis.

This process is heavily coordinated by the actions of the bladder neck, urethra and other internal parts.

However, while the familiar sensations that accompany the ejection of sperm take place down below, you should know that this process is dependent on a reflex that originates from your spinal cord.

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What Happens When You Can’t Have an Erection?

With a better understanding of the processes that come together to grant you rounds of intimate pleasure, it’s expected that you’ll have a deeper appreciation every time you achieve a penile erection. 

This is especially true when you find that your ability to maintain and keep an erection isn’t always guaranteed.

Erectile dysfunction makes it difficult to get or maintain an erection long enough to engage in satisfying intercourse. 

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, this condition affects close to 30 million men in the US alone, making it a widespread sexual health challenge. 

If you are experiencing this common condition, talk to a hims healthcare provider about erectile dysfunction treatment.

Any number of factors may interfere with normal erectile function. For example, chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease or heart-attack causing high blood pressure can lead to ED. 

Likewise, diabetes which is commonly caused by high blood sugar may affect your ability to produce normal erections. 

Other medical conditions may include: kidney issues, high cholesterol, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, prostate cancer, low testosterone, or Peyronie’s disease.

ED may also be caused by mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, performance fears or emotional issues that stem from stress or relationship problems.

Learn more about the causes of erectile dysfunction here.

How to Get Stronger Erections

Despite being so common, there are a number of trusted treatment methods to help manage erection trouble. 

To produce an erection sufficient to please you and your partner, the following treatment methods may be employed:

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The Straight-Up on How Erections Work

Generally speaking, and as gone into detail above, erections happen when you become sexually stimulated (physically or mentally), causing blood to fill the penis.

If you’re not experiencing regular erections or they don’t last long enough to enjoy intercouse, it’s a good idea to reach out to a hims healthcare provider to learn more about erectile dysfunction and any potential causes you might be experiencing. 

Your provider can also provide treatment options to help you lead a more enjoyable sex life.

5 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Panchatsharam, P. K. (2021, May 9). Physiology, erection. StatPearls Internet. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513278/.
  2. Revenig, L., Leung, A., & Hsiao, W. (2014, March). Ejaculatory physiology AND pathophysiology: Assessment and treatment in male infertility. Translational andrology and urology. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4708301/.
  3. Sam, P. (2021, July 26). Anatomy, abdomen and Pelvis, Penis. StatPearls Internet. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482236/.
  4. Shafik, A., & El-Sibai, A. (2000). Mechanism of ejection during ejaculation: Identification of a urethrocavernosus reflex. Archives of Andrology, 44(1), 77–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/014850100262443.
  5. Sooriyamoorthy, T. (2021, August 12). Erectile dysfunction. StatPearls Internet. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562253/.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.