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J Natl Cancer Inst. 1997 Aug 6;89(15):1117-23.

Patient-reported impotence and incontinence after nerve-sparing radical prostatectomy.

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  • 1Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.



The age-adjusted rate of radical prostatectomy, the most common treatment of early (nonmetastatic) prostate cancer, increased almost sixfold between 1984 and 1990. This increase was due in part to reported improvements in postoperative sexual potency after the use of newly developed "nerve-sparing" procedures. However, published estimates from physicians of impotence following various types of radical prostatectomy may be low, since not all patients may report treatment-related complications accurately and completely to their doctors. In contrast, direct surveys of patients indicate much higher rates of postoperative sexual and urinary dysfunction. One problem with most physician and patient surveys is that they have been performed retrospectively, and pretreatment impotence and incontinence prevalent in older men cannot be assessed accurately in retrospective studies.


This study was initiated in a cohort of men before they underwent radical prostatectomy to assess treatment-related effects on impotence and incontinence.


The study population consisted of 94 men enrolled in a cohort study of treatment for early prostate cancer. The patients completed questionnaires about sexual and urinary functions before surgery and at 3 and 12 months after surgery and had adequate information to assess the type of surgical technique used (non-nerve-sparing, unilateral nerve-sparing, or bilateral nerve-sparing). Because items assessing sexual function were inadvertently omitted from the questionnaire in the initial months of the study, information on sexual function for all time periods was available for only 49 men.


Compared with men who had not been treated with a nerve-sparing procedure, men who underwent nerve-sparing radical prostatectomy, particularly of the bilateral type, were younger and had better prognostic features, indicating less advanced cancers. Before surgery, nine (75%) of 12 men not treated with a nerve-sparing procedure reported erections that were usually inadequate for sexual intercourse compared with six (33%) of 18 men and one (5%) of 19 men who underwent unilateral and bilateral nerve-sparing prostatectomies, respectively. At 12 months after surgery, most men reported inadequate erections, including 15 (79%) of the 19 men who had bilateral nerve-sparing surgery; unilateral nerve preservation provided no apparent benefit. In general, nerve-sparing surgery was associated with more use of absorbent pads at 3 and 12 months following treatment, and this approach was associated with substantial urinary incontinence at 3 months but not at 12 months following surgery.


Nerve-sparing prostatectomy, particularly when performed unilaterally, improves postoperative sexual function to a lesser extent than previously reported. Because men with preoperative impotence and more advanced cancers receive nerve-sparing surgery less often, some of the previously reported benefit of nerve preservation may be the result of patient selection and not of the technique per se.

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