An attractive woman wearing a white lab coat instructed me to get completely naked from the waist down. Though I was given a medical sheet to place over my exposed genital area, it’s quickly pushed away so that she could slather baby oil over my penis and testicles with latex-gloved hands.
“Is this going to hurt?” I asked.
“Here, let me show you,” she said, before touching the end of what looks like a ray gun from a 1950s B-movie to my forearm. It felt similar to a wand-style vibrator on the highest setting.
“That’s not too bad, right?” she said.
“No,” I stammered upon realizing that it was the very opposite of bad. “Not at all.”
“Okay, then let’s begin,” she said while cupping my slick nads with one hand and moving the ray gun thing towards my penis.
This sounds like a scene from some cockamamie porn movie, but it was actually all part of a fairly new treatment for erectile dysfunction that’s got a surprising amount of peer-reviewed studies behind it. Many of the findings indicated that extracorporeal shockwave therapy works in the treatment of ED, with very few adverse effects reported by people who tried it.
The current industry leader is GAINSWave, and the technology involves high-frequency, low-intensity sound waves being beamed into the penis. These waves are said to break up “micro plaque” (the microscopic deposition of cholesterol and calcification on the inside of very small blood vessels) and stimulate the growth of new blood vessels. It should be noted, though, that this particular theory about breaking up micro plaque and improving blood flow for ED has only been tested in rodents thus far.
The purported result, though? Better boners.
I actually hadn’t heard of micro plaque or, indeed, GAINSWave until I was contacted by a PR person for the company asking if I’d like a complimentary session. It’s awkward explaining to a complete stranger via LinkedIn that, despite how often I invite medical professionals to do things to my genitals, I don’t actually have erectile dysfunction. Unfazed, the PR rep referred me to reading material that explained that, while the technology is used to treat ED or Peyronie's disease—a condition in which a fibrous scar tissue forms beneath the surface of the skin, causing curved and painful erections—people who simply want to have harder, better erections can also benefit.
There’s reasonably good research that suggests this therapy could help men with mild ED—albeit with some qualifiers, said Seth Cohen, a urologist and professor of urology at NYU Langone Health. “Is it FDA approved? No. Is there a ton of data? No. That’s because this technology is really pretty new,” he said. In three or four years' time, he added, the medical community will have a better grasp on how effective this modality actually is.
Landon Trost, a Mayo Clinic urologist, leans on the skeptical side as well, saying, “The data are very soft on its efficacy.” He mentioned that there is still debate as to whether or not the therapy is actually effective at explaining that many of the placebo-controlled studies have significant flaws.
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“Of the studies that are suggesting efficacy, the overall increase in the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF) score [the standard way of measuring erectile function] was only two to three points,” he said, adding, by way of context, that exercise increases IIEF by three to five points, while sildenafil (the main ingredient in Viagra) increases it by five to nine. “So, if it does increase erectile function, it does so very minimally,” he said.
I should mention that I only spoke to Trost and Cohen after my treatment in hopes of getting the most out of any placebo effects. After skimming some of the studies GAINSWave collated and presented on their website, I bought into the idea of having my best-ever erection and quickly booked an appointment at my nearest GAINSWave provider—Healthy Point Medical Center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
The center describes itself as a multi-specialty medical facility offering services including primary care, immigration medicals, and dermatology, but flyers and pamphlets for GAINSWave were all over the reception area and waiting room. The woman checking me in reviewed my answers to a sexual function questionnaire she asked me to fill out.
“You really don’t have anything going on, so this will be like a boost for you,” she told me before divulging that her non-ED-having 26-year-old boyfriend had recently had a session, and the results were, “Like, whoa!” This is also an appropriate reaction to the cost: A single session starts at around $500, and the company recommends a package of six for optimum results.
After the woman at reception confirmed the price, she added that—unlike the much more cost-effective sildenafil or tadalafil—the effects are “all you” and don’t require you to time popping a pill at the prospect of sex.
With the wand was about to be applied to my most sensitive areas, the practitioner, Natalia, asked me if I’d experienced any prostate problems, since GAINSWave may have some risks for people who do. She didn't go into detail, but Trost told me about this contraindication later: For men with prostate calcifications, the therapy could potentially lead to perineal pain and inflammation in the prostate.
With my balls oiled up and in Natalia’s hands, I gave her the go-ahead. She instructed me to place the soles of my feet together “like a froggy,” and I dutifully did so. With that, she glided the hardware along the length of my penis, my perineum—colloquially known as the “taint”—and the areas around the base, explaining this would increase blood flow to the whole area. Much to my embarrassment, blood started to flow to the area about two minutes into the treatment.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as she continues to run the implement around my junk, positioning my now three-quarters-erect penis this way and that.
“Don’t worry,” Natalia replied. “It happens pretty often.”
At that point, I found it a little difficult to make small talk, so I just laid back and closed my eyes. “There!” she said cheerfully, after two 15-minute sessions with a break in between. She handed me a paper towel to wipe up all the oil. “You’re all done.”
When I asked her how long it would be before I could expect any changes, she told me that some people experience changes immediately, and for others, it could take a few days or a couple of weeks.
As I’ve written about before, it’s normal for men to get four or five erections throughout the night, but the nocturnal boners I got the very first night after my treatment were so intense that they actually woke me up. My morning wood was equally robust, and for several weeks after my treatment, I was visited by erections of a type I haven’t known since college.
Around six weeks post-zapping, things seem to have gone back to how they were before. That’s a big difference from the “medically proven” two to three years of improvement that the GAINSWave website mentions, but that duration was for people who had both ED and had the recommended six sessions.
There are a few studies that showed the gradually diminishing effectiveness of low-intensity shockwave therapy beyond six months, Bay Area urologist Judson Brandeis told me. However, scores remained at above baseline erectile function in all cases. The largest of these studies demonstrated an initial response rate of 63 percent at one month decreasing to 43 percent at 12 months, declining to just 34 percent at a two-year follow-up. “The protocols in the studies differed in many ways, but most focused on six to 12 treatments,” he said.
My own belief is that at least a portion of GAINSWave’s efficacy—at least in my case—was placebo. Moreover, it was a placebo bolstered by the memory of the treatment session, which was more like a recurring wet dream I used to have in my adolescence than a medical procedure.