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How Do Penis Pumps Work? The Vacuum Pump Verdict

Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, ALM

Reviewed by Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, ALM

Written by Geoffrey C. Whittaker

Published 10/19/2020

Updated 01/10/2024

Erectile dysfunction affects approximately 30 million men of all ages and backgrounds across the United States, and if penis pumps alone could solve the problem, there would be one in every household. 

Non-pharmaceutical options like a penis pump for ED can help treat some effects of this condition, but there’s a few reasons they’re not in every home. There are also other solutions out there, including erectile dysfunction medications like sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra®).

Using a penis pump to help treat ED may not be your top choice —or your healthcare provider’s — but these devices can offer real benefits for your erections and sexual health.

Below, we’ve explained what penis pumps are, as well as how they work to help make getting and maintaining an erection easier.

We’ve also discussed the scientific research on their effectiveness, potential risks associated with using a penis pump and alternative options you may want to consider if you’re one of the tens of millions of men affected by ED every year.

Need a quick primer on penis pumps? We’ll get into more detail soon, but if you’re looking for some quick and dirty information, we’ve got you covered.

  • Penis pumps work by using suction to draw blood into your penis, helping you to get and maintain an erection for long enough to have sexual intercourse or to  just enjoy masturbation.

  • Many studies have shown that penis pumps offer benefits for men with ED, although they’re not always the most effective form of treatment.

  • Penis pumps are meant to promote erectile function, not penis enlargement. They will not permanently increase penis size — length or girth.

  • Beginner beware: penis pumps can cause side effects when misused, including injury to the tissue and blood vessels inside your penis.

  • Although using a penis pump can make getting an erection easier, it can be awkward and interrupt intimacy, meaning it isn’t right for all sexual situations. 

  • Your healthcare provider may suggest using a manual or battery-powered pump if you have erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate surgery.

Penis pumps (also referred to as vacuum pumps, vacuum erection devices and ED pumps) are tube-shaped devices that may help treat erectile dysfunction.

ED can be caused by a variety of factors, including physical conditions such as heart disease and psychological issues such as sexual performance anxiety. But since pumps treat the symptom, not the source, it doesn’t necessarily matter all that much what’s causing your particular ED.

Vacuum devices like penis pumps have a long history as potential treatments for ED. In fact, the first devices for helping treating ED using suction were developed in 1917.

Decades later, penis pumps were marketed as a type of “youth equivalent device” for improving blood flow to the penis — like a vampire facial for your dick, but thankfully not quite as weird.

Despite the emergence of several effective ED treatments over the decades, penis pumps are still a relatively popular option for men looking for temporary ED help.

Nowadays, penis pumps are a common option for men who have erectile dysfunction after radical prostatectomy — a surgical procedure that involves removing the prostate gland.

This type of procedure can affect the nerves around the penis, which may affect sexual function and blood flow.

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What Does a Penis Pump Do?

The science behind penis pumps is simple. Instead of relying on the vascular system alone to naturally provide the supply of blood your penis needs to get hard, a penis pump uses negative air pressure and an airtight seal to pull blood into the erectile tissue of the penis.

Most penis pumps are designed for use with a constriction ring, or penis pump cock ring, which is worn at the base of the penis to prevent venous outflow.

By pulling blood into the erectile tissue of the penis using negative pressure, a penis pump can make getting and maintaining an erection easier for men with damage to the nerves around the penis or fibrosis (scar tissue that develops in the penis).

Their phallic shape aside, penis pumps don’t really require a degree in rocket science to operate. Most consist of an elongated tube that’s designed to fit over your penis, as well as a constriction ring that’s worn during sex — chamber, seal, suction. 

Many penis pumps feature a rechargeable or battery-powered vacuum that removes air from the tube to create a harder erection. However, some penis pumps use a manual hand pump that you’ll need to operate to produce a vacuum. 

To use a penis pump:

  1. Place your penis inside the plastic tube. If necessary, you can apply lube to your penis to prevent rubbing or discomfort from the device. 

  2. Activate the electronic pump or manually remove air from the tube and stimulate blood flow to your penis. Most penis pumps produce an improvement in penile blood flow almost immediately, allowing you to get an erection over the course of a few minutes. 

  3. If you use a constriction ring to maintain your erection, carefully put it on near the base of your penis after using the pump. Make sure to pay close attention to the amount of time you wear any type of constriction ring, as excessive use may damage the tissue inside your penis.

  4. To keep yourself safe, try to set a timer for 30 minutes after using your penis pump to prevent your constriction ring from affecting blood circulation within your penis.

Numerous studies have looked into the effects of vacuum therapy for erectile dysfunction. 

A scientific review published in the International Journal of Impotence Research in 2010 looked at findings from 13 studies of vacuum therapy for ED treatment. 

Although the studies varied significantly in size and quality, some showed patient satisfaction or erection rates of more than 80 percent. Others showed lower satisfaction rates.

One of the longer studies analyzed as part of the review received responses from 115 men with ED after a period of 29 months.

The researchers found that 70 percent of the men used the vacuum device on a regular basis, with a patient-partner satisfaction rates of between 84 percent and 89 percent, respectively.

Penis pumps aren’t necessarily the best option for all men with ED, but they can offer a range of unique advantages. 

  • One of the biggest advantages of using a penis pump is that they’re reliable, especially if you’re unable to use medication to treat erectile dysfunction.

  • Most penis pumps are also easy to use, with just a few steps required to stimulate blood flow to your penis and produce an erection.

  • Unlike penile implants, penis pumps do not require any type of surgical procedure on your penis in order to function effectively. They’re noninvasive and, with some practice, can even be used as a sex toy during foreplay to make sex more intimate.

  • There are also no long-term, recurring costs involved in using a penis pump. Unlike medication for ED, which needs to be purchased on a frequent basis, a penis pump is a one-time purchase that can last for several years (depending on usage) before it needs to be replaced. 

Penis pumps also have several downsides. 

  • They can be dangerous if not used correctly

  • They’re indiscreet and require you and your partner to take a break during foreplay to stimulate your penis and produce an erection. For most people, this isn’t a dealbreaker. However, it may make sex awkward, particularly if you are having sex with a new partner. 

  • Penis pumps can also be time-consuming and inconvenient, especially when compared to oral medications for ED that can be taken prior to sex. 

Choose your chew

Penis pumps are generally considered safe when they’re used as advised. However, there are a few potential side effects and safety risks that you should be aware of if you’re considering using a penis pump to help with ED.

Potential side effects of penis pumps include:

  • Discomfort due to suction or constriction

  • Cyanosis (bluish-purple skin discoloration)

  • Petechiae (round, pinpoint spots on the skin)

  • Bruising on your penis

  • Difficulty ejaculating during sex

  • Damage to the tissues in the penis if the pump is used too aggressively or incorrectly or if a constriction ring is worn for too long

Penis Pump Usage Time

If you use a penis pump and constriction ring together, it’s important to pay close attention to the amount of time you wear the constriction ring. Constriction rings should be worn for a maximum of 30 minutes to avoid causing ischemic injury (damage due to poor blood flow) to your penis. 

It’s important to use a constriction ring that’s made using a flexible material like silicone for easy removal. Firm constriction rings — particularly rings made from metal — can provide an overly tight fit and may be difficult to remove when your penis is erect or if there’s an emergency. 

Penis Pump Erection Quality

One thing that’s worth noting is that the erection you obtain with a penis pump won’t always feel like a natural erection.

When an erection is obtained using a vacuum device, there may be less firmness near the base of your penis. 

This means that you may experience rotation or instability when using the device, as well as a less stable erection during penetrative sex. In other words, be careful during sex — you don’t want to end up like Dennis Rodman, with five championship rings and one broken penis.

Medical Conditions and Other Issues

Another thing to keep in mind is that penis pumps aren’t safe for all men. If you have a blood disorder or medical condition, or if you have a history of priapism (prolonged and painful erections), you generally shouldn’t use a penis pump.

It’s especially important to seek medical advice from your healthcare provider before considering this type of device if you have one of these conditions, or if you have other chronic conditions. 

It’s also important to consult your healthcare provider if you’re currently prescribed medication to treat any type of cardiovascular health condition, such as a blood thinner or high blood pressure medication. 

Are there FDA-Approved Penis Pumps?

You may be wondering what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has to say about penis pumps, and as goofy as the device may seem, it actually has strong enough benefits that it’s been approved to treat ED. 

Vacuum erectile devices were approved in 1982 and have since been specifically targeted for men needing post-radical prostatectomy treatment or who need occasional or infrequent treatment.

A number of these devices have been approved by the FDA, which generally means their quality and safety have been scrutinized. If you’d prefer an FDA-approved model, ask a healthcare professional for a recommendation.

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Penis pumps aren’t just a form of male enhancement — they’re an accepted form of ED treatment in certain circumstances. But that doesn’t mean they’re right for everyone. 

Their use can be awkward and the erections they produce don’t always feel totally natural, meaning they tend to be used only when other forms of managing ED aren’t effective.

Here are some crucial things to keep in mind if you’re about to go pump shopping:

  • Using a penis pump requires you to manually apply the device just before sex — something that might be inconvenient if you aren’t in a long-term relationship with an empathetic partner. 

  • You can find penis pumps online at just about every price point, but not all of these devices are created equal.

  • If you need to use a penis pump to help treat erectile dysfunction, your healthcare provider may give you a specific model that’s both safe and likely to be effective.

  • One important feature — a vacuum limiter — may help to reduce your risk of injury while using a penis pump. 

  • It’s important to choose a constriction ring that’s the right size for your penis. A good penis ring should fit firmly enough to prevent blood from flowing out from your penis, but not so tightly that it causes pain or discomfort.

As always, if you’re not sure what type of penis pump or constriction ring to purchase, the best approach is to talk to your healthcare provider.

Worried you might be developing ED? You can learn more about what to look for in our guide to the most common symptoms of erectile dysfunction, or learn about improving your sexual health naturally in our detailed guide to natural methods for protecting your erection.

6 Sources

  1. Stein, M. J., Lin, H., & Wang, R. (2014). New advances in erectile technology. Therapeutic advances in urology, 6(1), 15–24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3891291/.
  2. Cookson, M. S., & Nadig, P. W. (1993). Long-term results with vacuum constriction device. The Journal of urology, 149(2), 290–294. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8426404/.
  3. Hoyland, K., Vasdev, N., & Adshead, J. (2013). The use of vacuum erection devices in erectile dysfunction after radical prostatectomy. Reviews in urology, 15(2), 67–71. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3784970/.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Definition & Facts for erectile dysfunction - NIDDK. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/urologic-diseases/erectile-dysfunction/definition-facts.
  5. Vacuum constriction device for management of erectile impotence. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2023, from https://www.auajournals.org/doi/10.1016/S0022-5347%2817%2940752-X.
  6. Yuan, J., Hoang, A., Romero, C. et al. Vacuum therapy in erectile dysfunction—science and clinical evidence. Int J Impot Res 22, 211–219 (2010). https://www.nature.com/articles/ijir20104.
Editorial Standards

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, ALM

Dr. Mike Bohl is a licensed physician, a Medical Advisor at Hims & Hers, and the Director of Scientific & Medical Content at a stealth biotech startup, where he is involved in pharmaceutical drug development. Prior to joining Hims & Hers, Dr. Bohl spent several years working in digital health, focusing on patient education. He has also worked in medical journalism for The Dr. Oz Show (receiving recognition for contributions from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences when the show won Outstanding Informative Talk Show at the 2016–2017 Daytime Emmy® Awards) and at Sharecare. He is a Medical Expert Board Member at Eat This, Not That! and a Board Member at International Veterinary Outreach.

Dr. Bohl obtained his Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Medicine from Brown University, his Master of Public Health from Columbia University, and his Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies—Journalism from Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a Master of Business Administration and Master of Science in Healthcare Leadership at Cornell University. Dr. Bohl trained in internal medicine with a focus on community health at NYU Langone Health.

Dr. Bohl is Certified in Public Health by the National Board of Public Health Examiners, Medical Writer Certified by the American Medical Writers Association, a certified Editor in the Life Sciences by the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, a Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Nutrition Coach by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and a Board Certified Medical Affairs Specialist by the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs. He has graduate certificates in Digital Storytelling and Marketing Management & Digital Strategy from Harvard Extension School and certificates in Business Law and Corporate Governance from Cornell Law School.

In addition to his written work, Dr. Bohl has experience creating medical segments for radio and producing patient education videos. He has also spent time conducting orthopedic and biomaterial research at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals of Cleveland and practicing clinically as a general practitioner on international medical aid projects with Medical Ministry International.

Dr. Bohl lives in Manhattan and enjoys biking, resistance training, sailing, scuba diving, skiing, tennis, and traveling. You can find Dr. Bohl on LinkedIn for more information.

Publications

  • Younesi, M., Knapik, D. M., Cumsky, J., Donmez, B. O., He, P., Islam, A., Learn, G., McClellan, P., Bohl, M., Gillespie, R. J., & Akkus, O. (2017). Effects of PDGF-BB delivery from heparinized collagen sutures on the healing of lacerated chicken flexor tendon in vivo. Acta biomaterialia, 63, 200–209. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1742706117305652?via%3Dihub

  • Gebhart, J. J., Weinberg, D. S., Bohl, M. S., & Liu, R. W. (2016). Relationship between pelvic incidence and osteoarthritis of the hip. Bone & joint research, 5(2), 66–72. https://boneandjoint.org.uk/Article/10.1302/2046-3758.52.2000552

  • Gebhart, J. J., Bohl, M. S., Weinberg, D. S., Cooperman, D. R., & Liu, R. W. (2015). Pelvic Incidence and Acetabular Version in Slipped Capital Femoral Epiphysis. Journal of pediatric orthopedics, 35(6), 565–570. https://journals.lww.com/pedorthopaedics/abstract/2015/09000/pelvic_incidence_and_acetabular_version_in_slipped.5.aspx

  • Islam, A., Bohl, M. S., Tsai, A. G., Younesi, M., Gillespie, R., & Akkus, O. (2015). Biomechanical evaluation of a novel suturing scheme for grafting load-bearing collagen scaffolds for rotator cuff repair. Clinical biomechanics (Bristol, Avon), 30(7), 669–675. https://www.clinbiomech.com/article/S0268-0033(15)00143-6/fulltext

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