How Do Penis Pumps Work?

According to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Medicare has spent more than $240 million of taxpayer money on penis pumps for elderly men over the past decade, and will surpass a quarter of a billion dollars this year for costs since 2001. (Heartlander)

Doctors view the penis pump—or “vacuum constriction device,” as it’s called in the business—as a reasonable, low-cost treatment for erectile dysfunction. A report from the American Urological Association says that constriction devices might be useful in cases where PDE5-inhibitor drugs like Viagra are ineffective. Still, most men (or couples) don’t like using the penis pump: The report concludes that “low patient acceptability limits the application or use of this therapy.”

The device consists of an acrylic tube and a pumping mechanism, which can be a squeeze ball, a hand grip, a plunger, or an electric device. As the user pumps air out of the tube, the resulting vacuum increases blood flow into his erectile tissue. He then slides a “constriction ring” or cock ring over the base of his penis to maintain the erection when he removes the tube.

A vacuum erection may not always feel like the real thing. Various sources describe them as “spongy and semi-flaccid,” purplish in color, and sometimes cold or numb. But clinical studies still find high rates of satisfaction among those who receive the vacuum treatment for ED. (Researchers measure the effectiveness of a treatment by asking patients to rate their sexual experiences on the “International Index of Erectile Function.”)

The vacuum pumps have also proved successful in studies of penile rehabilitation. Certain procedures—like radical prostatectomies—can cause temporary impotence as a result of nerve damage. If you go long enough without a spontaneous erection, some of your penile tissue can atrophy, causing long-term dysfunction. It turns out that postoperative use of a penis pump may help stave off this damage.

Penis pumps are available over the counter, and some men without ED use them for masturbation or to increase their length or girth. To accomplish this latter goal, vendors suggest 30-minute sessions three or four times per week for a period of several months. The medical literature, however, does not support the idea that vacuum constriction will produce a lasting change in penis size.

If anything, overuse of the pump can damage the penis. The American Urological Association recommends only those devices that come with a “vacuum limiter,” which automatically lets in air if too much negative pressure builds in the tube. Excessive pumping without the vacuum limiter can cause penile bruising, or—in extreme cases—very serious tissue damage.  (Daniel Engber, Slate.com)