Relaxation of the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa of the penis is necessary for penile erection. To determine the relation of impaired relaxation to impotence in diabetic patients, we performed an in vitro examination of corpus cavernosum tissue obtained at the time of implantation of a penile prosthesis in 21 diabetic and 42 nondiabetic men with impotence. Contraction was induced in isolated strips of corporal smooth muscle by norepinephrine; then relaxation was assessed with electrical stimulation of autonomic nerves and with the administration of three agents: acetylcholine, which is known to be mediated by endothelium-derived relaxing factor; papaverine; and sodium nitroprusside. The latter two act directly on smooth muscle (i.e., they are endothelium-independent). Autonomically mediated relaxation with electrical stimulation was less pronounced in the smooth muscle from diabetic men (n = 18) than in the smooth muscle from nondiabetic men (n = 24; P = 0.001). The degree of impairment increased with the duration of diabetes (r = 0.61, P = 0.007). Endothelium-dependent relaxation was also impaired, as evidenced by a lower degree of muscle relaxation after the administration of acetylcholine in the tissue from diabetic men (n = 16) than in that from nondiabetic men (n = 22; P = 0.001). The adverse effects of diabetes persisted after we controlled for smoking and hypertension. Endothelium-independent relaxation after the administration of nitroprusside and papaverine was similar in tissue from the diabetic and nondiabetic men. We conclude that diabetic men with impotence have impairment in both the autonomic and the endothelium-dependent mechanisms that mediate the relaxation of the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa. These findings may provide a rationale for the treatment of diabetic men with impotence by intracavernosal injection of vasodilators to induce endothelium-independent relaxation of the smooth muscle.