By the time dermatologist Sanjeev Vaishampayan met his patient, a 45-year-old father of four, the man was in a bad way. Antibiotics had taken care of the infected lesions on his legs, but now the man had a new and mortifying problem: His genitals were bulging and bloated. “The scrotum was huge and its contents could not be palpated,” Vaishampayan observed. What’s more, the man’s swollen penis curved sharply at the tip. Vaishampayan had no trouble coming up with a diagnosis. This man had a clear-cut case of saxophone penis.
Saxophone penis, sometimes called “ram’s horn” penis, is just what it sounds like. The condition describes a penis so sharply twisted it resembles, well, the instrument from which it takes its name. Swelling causes the distortion, but the source of the swelling varies and is often difficult to pinpoint.
The trouble starts with a blockage in the body’s lymphatic system, a network of vessels and nodes that transports a clear fluid called lymph. Normally lymph flows freely, passing from the tissue into the vessels, which return the lymph to the bloodstream. But when the lymph vessels become plugged, the fluid can’t drain. It builds up, causing swelling and a condition known as lymphedema. The swelling can affect your arm or leg or foot, or if you’re exceedingly unlucky, your genitals. There’s a complicated hypothesis for why the penis curls in addition to swelling, but I won’t go into that now. (If you’re interested, you can read more here.)
When a man walks into a clinic with saxophone penis, it’s clear that the problem is lymphedema. The tricky part is figuring out the source of the blockage. In some cases, the problem is worms stopping up the lymph vessels. In other cases, the bacterium that causes chlamydia is the culprit. In rare cases, saxophone penis can be caused by a tuberculosis infection. Vaishampayan’s patient seemed to have developed the condition when a staph infection jumped from his legs to his genitals. Even if the cause is apparent, there’s often little a physician can do. Strong medicines can kill worms or other pathogens, but often the damage has already been done. And then the only option is surgery.
Here’s my point: saxophone penis is no joke. It’s a debilitating and humiliating condition. But it’s difficult to take this malady seriously when it has such a ridiculous name. Saxophone penis sounds like the punch line to a dirty joke. These images (here and here) suggest even doctors find it slightly amusing (click at your own risk, seriously). Men with twisted, swollen penises have suffered enough. Let’s not put their deformed appendages next to sketches of musical instruments so that readers can see the resemblance. We all know what a saxophone looks like. (Also, this is off topic, but is that cartoon saxophone creepily playing itself?!)
As a science writer, I’m all for speaking plainly. And I abhor medical jargon. But I’m going to make an exception. Could we please find a new, less-graphic name for saxophone penis? Perhaps something lengthy and hard to pronounce. A name that doesn’t paint a mental image. Let’s give the men who have this condition just the tiniest shred of dignity.
Image courtesy of julochka on Flickr