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The corpus cavernosum is a column or dense bundling of soft tissues found in both the male and female sex organs. It’s usually most noticeable in males, where two bundles extend almost the entire length of the penis. The model in females is similar, though on a much smaller scale. At first the bundles look solid, but they are actually hollow cavities that fill with blood and expand greatly during sexual arousal. The “cavernosum” part of the name relates to this cave-like quality of the tissues when viewed up close. They intensify arousal and also work to make fertilization more likely. When these tissues don’t work properly, either by not filling fully or not stretching adequately, both men and women sometimes experience a decreased libido or an inability to become aroused, though in most cases these issues are also connected to a range of other more common causes and triggers. Problems with this part of the anatomy are relatively rare.
The human reproductive system is made up of a number of very complicated and precise parts. Both male and female sex organs are filled with muscles, nerves, and tissues that work together to allow arousal, then actual intercourse, fertilization and, ultimately, pregnancy. The corpus cavernosum is an important piece of this larger work.
The tissues are typically present in narrow columns, two that run the length of the penis and two that circle the clitoris, the sensitive bundle of nerve endings that sits between the upper lips of the vagina. Together, these columns are referred to as the corpora cavernosa. In order to distinguish between the female and male versions, the term is often cited as “corpus cavernosum penis” for males and “corpus cavernosum clitoridis” for females.
Sexual arousal is often described as feelings of intense desire and an inclination towards intimacy and intercourse, and certainly a lot of it is mental and emotional; there is an important physical component for both sexes, too, though. In men this manifests as penile erection, which is when the penis grows hard, lengthens, and stands upright. Things are much more understated in women, but the clitoris also swells and grows. Both processes depend on a rush of blood, much of which is stored in the spongy tissues of the corpus cavernosa.
During male erection, the corpora cavernosa fills with blood helping the penis become hard. The corpus spongiosum — another part of the penis — stays soft. The corpus spongiosum stays soft because its job is to protect the urethra from getting pinched closed by the expanding tissues. If the urethra were to become closed, even just a little bit, semen would have a much harder time getting out during ejaculation. Semen carries sperm, which in turn houses the male genetic information and other materials needed for conception; when a sperm meets a female egg, fertilization and ultimately pregnancy usually occurs.
Like the penis, the clitoris also contains corpora cavernosa. The idea of a true clitoral “erection” is somewhat controversial, though most medical experts agree that this nerve-rich region does swell and grow somewhat in response to sexual arousal. Tissue bundles here are obviously much smaller than they are in the penis, but the idea of the cavernous space filling with blood is the same just on a smaller scale.
Problems surrounding the corpora cavernosa can result in erectile dysfunction (ED), a male problem in which the penis remains flaccid and can’t grow firm enough for penetration and ejaculation. When this happens more or less constantly it can lead to impotence. Impotence and ED can be serious issues, but it should be noted that defects in the spongy penile tissues are only one of many possible causes.
Men affected by ED are sometimes directed by their physician or urology specialist to exercise these particular muscles. Through exercise, the goal is continued successful erection without the aid of more invasive techniques. Medicine and even surgery are sometimes available, but usually only in instances when the problem is seriously interfering with a man’s life.