Recurrent priapism: What is it, Causes, Preventions and Treatment

Recurrent priapism: What is it, Causes, Preventions and Treatment

Recurrent priapism” refers to a medical condition characterized by persistent and often painful erections that occur repeatedly without sexual stimulation. Priapism is a rare but potentially serious condition that can last for several hours and requires prompt medical attention. This prolonged and involuntary erection is not related to sexual arousal or desire and can affect men of all ages.

Recurrent priapism may be associated with various underlying causes, including blood disorders, medications, trauma, or neurological conditions. Management typically involves addressing the root cause and providing immediate treatment to alleviate the prolonged erection and prevent complications.

If someone experiences recurrent priapism or has concerns about their sexual health, it is crucial to seek medical attention promptly to determine the underlying cause and receive appropriate treatment.

What is priapism and how many types are there?

Priapism is a medical condition characterized by persistent and often painful erections that occur without sexual stimulation. It is a rare condition but can be a medical emergency requiring prompt attention.

There are three main types of priapism:

Ischemic (Low-flow) Priapism:

  • This is the more common type, accounting for the majority of priapism cases.
  • Ischemic priapism occurs when blood becomes trapped in the erectile tissues of the penis and is unable to flow out properly.
  • This leads to reduced oxygen supply to the tissues, potentially causing damage and requiring urgent medical intervention.
  • Ischemic priapism is usually associated with underlying medical conditions such as sickle cell disease, leukemia, or other blood disorders.

Non-Ischemic (High-flow) Priapism:

  • Non-ischemic priapism is less common and generally less severe than ischemic priapism.
  • It occurs when there is increased arterial blood flow into the penis, but the venous outflow remains normal.
  • Non-ischemic priapism is often caused by trauma to the genital area, such as a pelvic injury or perineal trauma.
  • While it is usually less urgent than ischemic priapism, medical evaluation is still necessary to determine the underlying cause.

Stuttering priapism:

  • It is a term used to describe recurrent or intermittent episodes of prolonged erection (priapism) that occur over time.
  • Recurrent priapism refers to episodes that come and go, with periods of normal erectile function in between.
  • Stuttering priapism is more commonly seen in conditions such as sickle cell disease, where blood cells can become misshapen and block blood vessels, leading to impaired circulation.

What is recurrent priapism?

“Recurrent priapism” refers to a condition where a person experiences repeated episodes of priapism. Its also called intermittent or stuttering priapism. It is is generally self-limiting and lasts less than 3 to 4 hours each episode. Priapism itself is a medical emergency characterized by prolonged and often painful erections that occur without sexual stimulation. The term “recurrent” indicates that these episodes of priapism happen more than once over time.

Individuals experiencing recurrent priapism should seek prompt medical attention to determine the cause and receive appropriate care to prevent complications and ensure their overall health and well-being.

Causes of recurrent priapism

Recurrent priapism can have various underlying causes, and identifying the specific factor contributing to the repeated episodes is essential for effective management. Some common causes of recurrent priapism include:

Sickle Cell Disease: Individuals with sickle cell disease are at an increased risk of developing recurrent priapism. The abnormal shape of red blood cells in sickle cell disease can lead to blood flow obstruction and prolonged erections.

Leukemia: Certain types of blood cancers, such as leukemia, can be associated with recurrent priapism. The abnormal proliferation of blood cells may affect normal blood flow in the penis.

Blood Disorders: Other blood disorders, such as thalassemia or polycythemia, can contribute to recurrent priapism by affecting the viscosity and flow of blood.

Medications: Some medications, such as certain antidepressants, anticoagulants, or medications used to treat erectile dysfunction, may have priapism listed as a potential side effect.

Illicit Drug Use: The use of certain recreational drugs, such as cocaine or marijuana, has been associated with priapism.

Trauma: Previous genital or perineal trauma may lead to the development of scar tissue or vascular abnormalities that contribute to recurrent priapism.

Neurological Conditions: Conditions affecting the nervous system, such as spinal cord injuries, may disrupt the normal mechanisms that regulate blood flow in the penis.

Idiopathic Cases: In some instances, the cause of recurrent priapism may not be readily apparent, and the condition is classified as idiopathic.


Preventing recurrent priapism involves identifying and addressing the underlying causes or risk factors that contribute to the condition. Here are some general strategies and preventive measures that may be considered:

  1. Identify and Treat Underlying Conditions:
  • Conduct a thorough medical evaluation to identify any underlying medical conditions or risk factors that may be contributing to priapism.
    • Treat conditions such as sickle cell disease, blood disorders, or other systemic diseases that may increase the risk of priapism.
  • Adjust Medications:
  • Review and, if possible, adjust medications that may be associated with priapism as a side effect. This may include certain antidepressants, anticoagulants, or medications for erectile dysfunction.
  • Lifestyle Modifications:
  • Avoid recreational drug use, as substances like cocaine and marijuana have been associated with priapism.
    • Stay well-hydrated, especially for individuals with conditions like sickle cell disease, as dehydration can increase the risk of priapism.
  • Regular Follow-up:
  • Attend regular follow-up appointments with a healthcare provider to monitor and manage any underlying conditions.
    • Adjust treatment plans as needed based on changes in health status or the effectiveness of preventive measures.
  • Hormonal Therapy:
  • In some cases, hormonal therapies, such as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists, may be considered to regulate blood flow and reduce the risk of priapism.
  • Psychological Support:
  • Manage stress, anxiety, or psychological factors that may contribute to episodes of priapism through counseling or therapy.
  • Surgical Interventions:
  • In certain situations, surgical procedures may be considered to prevent or reduce the frequency of priapism. This may involve shunting blood away from the penis.
  • Patient Education:
  • Educate the individual and their partners about the condition, its triggers, and the importance of seeking prompt medical attention for any signs of priapism.

It’s important to note that preventive measures will vary based on the specific underlying cause of recurrent priapism. Therefore, a personalized approach to prevention is crucial, and individuals should work closely with their healthcare providers to develop an effective and tailored plan based on their medical history and risk factors. Regular communication with urologist, adherence to prescribed treatments, and a healthy lifestyle are key components of preventing recurrent priapism.


Recurrent priapism, if not promptly and effectively treated, can lead to various complications, both immediate and long-term. Some of the potential complications include:

Erectile Dysfunction (ED): Persistent and untreated priapism can cause damage to the erectile tissues of the penis, leading to erectile dysfunction. This is more likely to occur in cases of ischemic (low-flow) priapism.

Penile Tissue Damage: Prolonged episodes of priapism can result in damage to the penile tissue, including fibrosis (formation of scar tissue). This may affect the normal functioning of the penis and contribute to ED.

Pain and Discomfort: Recurrent priapism is often associated with pain and discomfort during prolonged erections, impacting the individual’s quality of life.

Psychological Impact: The condition can have psychological consequences, including anxiety, depression, and emotional distress, especially if the episodes are frequent or if there is an impact on sexual function.

Reduced Quality of Life: The recurrent nature of priapism can significantly affect a person’s overall quality of life, leading to frustration, embarrassment, and limitations in daily activities.

Complications from Treatment: Some treatment interventions, such as medications or surgical procedures, may carry risks of complications, including infection, bleeding, or adverse reactions to medications.

Recurrence: Despite treatment efforts, there is a risk of recurrent priapism episodes, especially if the underlying cause is challenging to manage or if preventive measures are not effective.

Impact on Relationships: The condition may have implications for intimate relationships, leading to strain or difficulties in sexual relationships.

It’s crucial for individuals experiencing recurrent priapism to seek prompt medical attention to prevent or minimize these complications. Early intervention can help manage acute episodes, identify and address the underlying cause, and implement preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of future occurrences. Regular follow-up with healthcare professionals is essential to monitor the condition and adjust the treatment plan as needed. Open communication with healthcare providers can also address any emotional or psychological aspects associated with the condition.


The primary symptom of recurrent priapism is the occurrence of persistent and often painful erections that happen repeatedly without sexual arousal or stimulation. Here are some key symptoms associated with recurrent priapism:

Prolonged Erection: Recurrent priapism involves persistent erections that last for an extended period, often lasting several hours.

Pain or Discomfort: The prolonged erection is typically accompanied by pain or discomfort in the penis.

No Sexual Arousal: Unlike normal erections that occur in response to sexual stimulation or arousal, priapism occurs spontaneously without any sexual triggers.

Recurrent Episodes: The defining characteristic of recurrent priapism is the repeated occurrence of these prolonged erections over time.

Potential Erectile Dysfunction: If recurrent priapism is not promptly treated, it may lead to damage to the erectile tissues and, in some cases, result in erectile dysfunction.

It’s crucial for individuals experiencing symptoms of recurrent priapism to seek immediate medical attention. Priapism is considered a medical emergency, and delay in treatment can lead to complications such as tissue damage and long-term erectile dysfunction


The diagnosis of recurrent priapism involves a thorough medical evaluation to identify the underlying cause and determine the most appropriate course of treatment. The diagnostic process may include the following steps:

  1. Medical History:
  • A detailed medical history is crucial to understanding the patient’s overall health and identifying any potential risk factors or underlying conditions.
    • The healthcare provider may inquire about the frequency, duration, and circumstances of the recurrent priapism episodes.
  • Physical Examination:
  • A physical examination, including examination of the genitalia, is performed to assess the patient’s overall health and identify any physical abnormalities.
    • The healthcare provider may evaluate the penis for signs of tenderness, swelling, or other abnormalities.
  • Blood Tests:
  • Blood tests may be conducted to assess for underlying conditions such as blood disorders (e.g., sickle cell disease), leukemia, or other hematological abnormalities.
    • Laboratory tests may include a complete blood count (CBC) and tests to assess blood clotting factors.
  • Imaging Studies:
  • Imaging studies, such as Doppler ultrasound, may be used to assess blood flow in the penis and identify any abnormalities in the vascular system.
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scans may be ordered in certain cases to evaluate the pelvic region.
  • Aspiration and Blood Gas Analysis:
  • If needed, a healthcare provider may perform an aspiration of blood from the penis to assess the oxygen content and determine whether the priapism is ischemic or non-ischemic.
  • Neurological Assessment:
  • In cases where neurological conditions are suspected, a neurological assessment may be conducted to evaluate the functioning of the nervous system.
  • Medication Review:
  • The healthcare provider will review the patient’s current medications to identify any drugs that may contribute to priapism.
  • Specialized Tests:
  • Depending on the findings, additional specialized tests may be ordered to investigate specific causes or contributing factors.


The treatment of recurrent priapism involves addressing the underlying cause and managing the acute episodes to prevent complications. The specific approach to treatment will depend on whether the priapism is ischemic (low-flow) or non-ischemic (high-flow). Here are general strategies for managing recurrent priapism:

  1. Emergency Measures:
  1. Ischemic priapism is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate attention. The healthcare provider may perform aspiration, where blood is manually withdrawn from the penis to relieve pressure and improve blood flow.
    1. In some cases, medications such as phenylephrine may be injected into the penis to constrict blood vessels and reduce blood flow.
  • Identifying and Treating Underlying Causes:
  1. Once the acute episode is managed, efforts are made to identify and treat the underlying cause of recurrent priapism.
    1. Blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease, may require specific treatments targeting the underlying condition.
    1. Adjustment of medications that may contribute to priapism may be necessary.
  • Preventive Measures:
  1. Depending on the underlying cause, preventive measures may be recommended to reduce the likelihood of future episodes.
    1. This may include lifestyle modifications, such as avoiding certain medications or substances known to trigger priapism.
  • Surgery:
  1. In cases where conservative measures are ineffective, surgical interventions may be considered. This can include procedures to shunt blood away from the penis, improving blood flow.
  • Hormonal Therapy:
  1. Hormonal treatments, such as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists, may be considered in some cases to regulate blood flow and prevent recurrent priapism.
  • Psychological Support:
  1. Dealing with recurrent priapism can be emotionally challenging. Psychological support may be beneficial for individuals experiencing anxiety or stress related to the condition.
  • Phosphodiesterase-5Inhibitors (PDE5is): PDE5is work by inhibiting the enzyme phosphodiesterase type 5, leading to increased blood flow to the penis during sexual arousal. While these medications can help achieve and maintain an erection, they do not address the underlying causes of priapism, especially in cases of recurrent priapism.
  • Penile prosthesis implantation: If all available treatments are insufficient or if priapism lasts more than 36 hours, penile prosthesis surgery is required.

It’s crucial for individuals with recurrent priapism to work closely with their healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate course of action. Timely and comprehensive treatment is essential to prevent complications such as erectile dysfunction and to improve overall quality of life. Regular follow-up with a healthcare professional is typically recommended to monitor for any recurrence and adjust the treatment plan as needed.

Brief overview

Recurrent priapism is a rare medical condition characterized by repeated and prolonged erections without sexual stimulation. It can lead to pain, tissue damage, and psychological distress. Causes include blood disorders, medications, trauma, or neurological conditions. Treatment involves addressing acute episodes, identifying and treating underlying causes, and implementing preventive measures. Complications may include erectile dysfunction and reduced quality of life. Prevention strategies include lifestyle modifications, adjusting medications, and regular medical follow-up. Early intervention and personalized care are essential for managing recurrent priapism effectively.

Prof. Dr. Emin ÖZBEK


Istanbul- TURKEY

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