Introduction: Our understanding of genital and pelvic floor physiology is rapidly expanding. Penile erection is a neurovascular event controlled by spinal autonomic centers, the activity of which is dependent on input from supraspinal centers and the genitalia. Genital afferent stimulation excites spinal autonomic nuclei and supraspinal sexual centers of both genders.
Aim: To present a detailed understanding of the functional importance of genital afferent neuroanatomy and neurophysiology.
Methods: English-written articles of diverse disciplines from 1980 to 2010 that contained information on genital anatomy, pudendal/dorsal/perineal/cavernous nerves, vibratory stimulation, reflexogenic erection, peripheral/central nervous system-mediated erectile and micturition pathways, and sexual arousal in animals and humans were reviewed.
Main outcome measures: Analysis of supporting evidence for the role of genital afferents in the physiology of erectile response and pelvic floor function.
Results: Basic science and clinical studies support the concept that pudendal nerve circuitry serves an essential purpose for sexual behavior, erectile function, penile rigidity, ejaculation, and micturition. Males and females share a comparable pattern of genital afferent neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, and sexual and micturition reflexes are similar in both genders. Pudendal nerve branches communicate with the cavernous nerves and are nitric oxide synthase positive. Genital afferents activate multiple spinal reflexes that modulate erection and micturition. Genital sensory information is transmitted to supraspinal centers important for sexual function.
Conclusions: There is expanding support for the critical role of genital afferent neurophysiology in the mechanisms of erectile function and micturition. Genital afferent stimulation is a safe and natural modality that can be harnessed to amplify autonomic and somatic activity within the penis, female genitalia, spinal cord, and higher centers via established neurological principles. Such physiological adaptive processes may be beneficial in improving sexual response, erectile function, and micturition in many disease states, including in men after radical pelvic surgery. Well-designed and -executed studies in each specific population are needed to authenticate such prospects.
© 2011 International Society for Sexual Medicine.