Priapism is a condition in which a penis remains erect for hours in the absence of stimulation or after stimulation has ended. There are three types: ischemic (low-flow), nonischemic (high-flow), and recurrent ischemic (intermittent). Most cases are ischemic. Ischemic priapism is generally painful while nonischemic priapism is not. In ischemic priapism, most of the penis is hard; however, the glans penis is not. In nonischemic priapism, the entire penis is only somewhat hard. Very rarely, clitoral priapism occurs in women.
Sickle cell disease is the most common cause of ischemic priapism. Other causes include medications such as antipsychotics, SSRIs, and blood thinners, as well as drugs such as cocaine and cannabis. Ischemic priapism occurs when blood does not adequately drain from the penis. Nonischemic priapism is typically due to a connection forming between an artery and the corpus cavernosum or disruption of the parasympathetic nervous system resulting in increased arterial flow. Nonischemic priapism may occur following trauma to the penis or a spinal cord injury. Diagnosis may be supported by blood gas analysis of blood aspirated from the penis or an ultrasound.
Treatment depends on the type. Ischemic priapism is typically treated with a nerve block of the penis followed by aspiration of blood from the corpora cavernosa. If this is not sufficient, the corpus cavernosum may be irrigated with cold, normal saline or injected with phenylephrine. Nonischemic priapism is often treated with cold packs and compression. Surgery may be done if usual measures are not effective. In ischemic priapism, the risk of permanent scarring of the penis begins to increase after four hours and definitely occurs after 48 hours. Priapism occurs in about 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 100,000 males per year.