Peyronie’s disease is characterized by a plaque, or hard lump, that forms within the penis. The plaque, a flat plate of scar tissue, develops on the top or bottom side of the penis inside a thick membrane called the tunica albuginea, which envelopes the erectile tissues. The plaque begins as a localized inflammation and develops into a hardened scar. This plaque has no relationship to the plaque that can develop in arteries.
Cases of Peyronie’s disease range from mild to severe. In severe cases, the hardened plaque reduces flexibility, causing pain and forcing the penis to bend or arc during erection. In many cases, the pain decreases over time, but the bend in the penis may remain a problem, making sexual intercourse difficult. The sexual problems that result can disrupt a couple’s physical and emotional relationship and can lower a man’s self-esteem. In a small percentage of men with the milder form of the disease, inflammation may resolve without causing significant pain or permanent bending.
The plaque itself is benign, or noncancerous. It is not a tumor. Peyronie’s disease is not contagious and is not known to be caused by any transmittable disease.
A plaque on the topside of the shaft, which is most common, causes the penis to bend upward; a plaque on the underside causes it to bend downward. In some cases, the plaque develops on both top and bottom, leading to indentation and shortening of the penis. At times, pain, bending, and emotional distress prohibit sexual intercourse.
Estimates of the prevalence of Peyronie’s disease range from less than 1 percent to 23 percent. Although the disease occurs mostly in middle age, younger and older men can develop it. About 30 percent of men with Peyronie’s disease develop hardened tissue on other parts of the body, such as the hand or foot.
Doctors can usually diagnose Peyronie’s disease based on a physical examination. The plaque can be felt when the penis is limp. Full evaluation, however, may require examination during erection to determine the severity of the deformity. The erection may be induced by injecting medicine into the penis or through self-stimulation. Some patients may eliminate the need to induce an erection in the doctor’s office by taking a picture at home. The examination may include an ultrasound scan of the penis to pinpoint the location(s) and calcification of the plaque. The ultrasound can also be used to evaluate blood flow into and out of the penis if there is a concern about erectile dysfunction.
Because the cause of Peyronie’s disease and its development are not well understood, doctors treat the disease empirically; that is, they prescribe and continue methods that seem to help. The goal of therapy is to restore and maintain the ability to have intercourse.
Because the course of Peyronie’s disease is different in each patient and because some patients experience improvement without treatment, medical experts suggest waiting 1 year or longer before having surgery.
Researchers conducted small-scale studies in which men with Peyronie’s disease who were given vitamin E orally reported improvements. Yet, no controlled studies have established the effectiveness of vitamin E therapy. Similar inconclusive success has been attributed to aminobenzoate potassium (Potaba). Other oral medications that have been used include colchicine, tamoxifen, and pentoxifylline. Again, no controlled studies have been conducted on these medications.
Researchers have also tried injecting chemical agents such as verapamil, collagenase, steroids, and interferon alpha-2b directly into the plaques. Verapamil and interferon alpha-2b seem to diminish curvature of the penis. The other injectable agent, collagenase, is undergoing clinical trial and results are not yet available. Steroids, such as cortisone, have produced unwanted side effects, such as the atrophy or death of healthy tissues. Another intervention involves iontophoresis, the use of a painless current of electricity to deliver verapamil or some other agent under the skin into the plaque.
Radiation therapy, in which high-energy rays are aimed at the plaque, has also been used. Like some of the chemical treatments, radiation appears to reduce pain, but it has no effect on the plaque itself and can cause unwelcome side effects such as erectile dysfunction.
Three surgical procedures for Peyronie’s disease have had some success. One procedure involves removing or cutting of the plaque and attaching a patch of skin, vein, or material made from animal organs. This method may straighten the penis and restore some lost length from Peyronie’s disease. However, some patients may experience numbness of the penis and loss of erectile function.
A second procedure, called plication, involves removing or pinching a piece of the tunica albuginea from the side of the penis opposite the plaque, which cancels out the bending effect. This method is less likely to cause numbness or erectile dysfunction, but it cannot restore length or girth of the penis.
A third surgical option is to implant a device that increases rigidity of the penis. In some cases, an implant alone will straighten the penis adequately. If the implant alone does not straighten the penis, implantation is combined with one of the other two surgical procedures.
Most types of surgery produce positive results. But because complications can occur, and because many of the effects of Peyronie’s disease-for example, shortening of the penis-are not usually corrected by surgery, most doctors prefer to perform surgery only on the small number of men with curvature severe enough to prevent sexual intercourse.