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Impotence Has Nothing to do with Machismo: Just ask Pele

Idolised by millions of football fans across the globe for his dazzling skills and sportsmanship, Pele proved to be the perfect role model for aspiring footballers everywhere. When you are someone as famous as Pele and can be considered to be the very epitome of masculinity, it certainly made people sit up and take notice when the Brazilian star of the past and father of five children, became the public spokesperson for one of the great male taboos: erectile dysfunction or ‘impotence’.

Pele was the perfect choice because impotence has nothing to do with machismo or ‘manliness’. Being a very masculine role model, he was in the perfect position of trust and respectability to be able to successfully deliver this important message and bring the subject out into the public arena.

TV appearance

With a glittering career and natural screen presence, Pele was a regular on our screens in his heyday. But his later TV appearances were not to talk about football, but to open up a discussion about erectile dysfunction (ED) and the possible treatments.

His aim for becoming the public face for the makers of Viagra was to point out that most men have it in their DNA to compete, and therefore it can be quite difficult for some men to admit that they have a problem. It was a brave decision by Pele to become an ambassador for something that is so personal and such a fundamentally different subject to football, but he has found that even friends of his whom he never suspected of erectile dysfunction, have subsequently come to see him and found the courage to talk about it and more, importantly, to go and seek medical help.

Causes of ED

There are quite a number of reasons why a man may experience ED and it is far more common than many people realise, with nearly half of men aged between 40 and 70 years of age experiencing ED at some point.

There are certain conditions that cause changes in the way that blood flows to the penis, these can lead to a difficulty in attaining or sustaining an erection. Conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can cause narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the penis. Smoking can exacerbate this and some prescription medicines such as those used for treating high blood pressure and prostate conditions as well.

Abnormal hormone levels also contribute to ED as does excessive alcohol intake and the use of recreational drugs. In all cases of ED, but particularly in younger men, there is a strong psychological component resulting from performance anxiety or underlying stress or depression. The pressure to perform is compounded by previous failed attempts.

Warning signs

Some men have a natural inclination to ignore medical warnings and hope that a problem they are experiencing will resolve itself naturally over a period of time. In some cases this is the case, particularly if there is a psychological component.
Although it is an embarrassing problem and many males would rather not talk about an issue that they believe questions their virility or masculinity, it was exactly this stigma that Pele has tried to challenge. Yet sadly many men still feel too embarrassed to discuss this issue with their partner, or even with their GP.

However, ED is not something that should be ignored as it could very well be an outward sign of an underlying problem that needs attention. There is a strong correlation with heart disease and strokes. It is not unusual for a man to pluck up the courage to make an appointment with their doctor about erectile dysfunction and then find that the cause is something like high cholesterol or a vascular problem which could easily lead to a stroke or a heart attack if not treated.

The longer a problem like diabetes goes undetected the more risk there is of the body suffering a greater level of damage, as high blood glucose will damage tissues and damage the vessels in the eyes and kidneys, eventually leading to further complications.

It is estimated that less than a quarter of men will seek medical help if they are experiencing sexual problems like ED, partly because some of them simply consider the problem to be a natural part of the ageing process. To get an erection, a man will need to have a healthy supply of blood flow to the penis along with normal hormone production and sexual stimulus as well.

When any of these requirements or functions are impaired, this will lead to ED, and this is a warning sign that should be heeded. The work that Pele is doing to raise awareness and tell men that it is perfectly normal and acceptable to seek medical help if they are experiencing erection problems, is helping to reduce the level of fear and embarrassment that is understandably going to be there when the subject is of such a personal and sexual nature.

Pele is quick to assure everyone that despite now being associated with erectile dysfunction, he has not actually had a problem himself as yet, but the message is perhaps strengthened by that fact that he is healthy and it is ok to talk about a problem like this and take action to get it sorted.

Dr Tom Brett trained St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School in London and graduated in 1992, a year later he immigrated to Australia where he began post-graduate General Practitioner training. In 1998 he gained fellowship of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and later, in 2000, was awarded a certificate in Sexual Health and HIV prescribing. In 2007 he returned to live and work in London and is now Medical Director for the Lloyds Pharmacy Online Doctor service.


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