It probably seems like a nightmare to think about your penis getting shorter day by day and eventually not being visible at all. But it can happen, and when it does, doctors refer to it as a buried penis. It’s not that your penis is actually getting shorter. It’s just that most of it is hidden.
What Is a Buried Penis?
“In general, it’s when tissue, usually lower abdominal tissue, or fat surrounds the penis—or covers or hides the penis. Clinically, when you look, you can’t see the penis, or it looks short or buried in that tissue,” explains Justin Dubin, M.D., a urologist and men’s health specialist at Memorial Healthcare System.
Essentially, your penis is its regular size, but it “doesn’t extend outside the body,” says Drogo Montague, M.D., a urologist at Cleveland Clinic. “There is an opening where the penis would normally hang, and the head is usually plush with skin, but there’s no shaft outside of the body.”
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Also referred to as hidden, vanishing, or concealed penis, the effect occurs on a continuum, notes Dr. Montague. You might notice at first, for instance, that your penis just seems to get shorter and shorter. (Though, it’s not the same as the small amount of shrinkage that some men see with age, which is due to skin cells around it becoming less elastic.) A buried penis is worth being concerned about.
“This is a serious condition because it will inhibit urination, intimacy, and personal hygiene,” explains Scott Miller, M.D., a board-certified urologist and medical director of Wellstar Urology. “It can also strongly impact self-esteem and overall emotional health.”
What Causes a Buried Penis?
A few things can cause a buried penis.
One is general abnormalities that occur at birth, where the ligaments that attach to the penis may be weak, according to Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Dubin says this is usually identified and surgically corrected early on.
Another cause can be “any surgery on your penis” that’s gone wrong, Dr. Dubin says. That can include circumcision, penile injections, penis enlargement, or other procedures. Scar tissue can form or someone can get an infection, leading to a buried penis.
“The ironic part is that while a lot of these things try to make your penis look bigger or be bigger, the complication is it can make your penis actually smaller and cause buried penis,” he says.
Lymphedema, where fluid build-up causes swelling in the scrotum, can cause a buried penis, too.
But, most cases of buried penis are due to one thing: obesity.
“Obesity is an epidemic,” says Dr. Montague. While the rates of buried penises haven’t been thoroughly studied, he sees more men in his office today suffering from the issue than he has in the past. It makes sense, as obesity experts are also seeing more clients than they have in the past.
Why Does Obesity Cause a Buried Penis?
First, a little refresher about your penis’s anatomy: The penis itself has two erection chambers, says Dr. Montague. “About one-third of these are inside the body and two-thirds are outside in the penile shaft,” he says.
But if you’re overweight or morbidly obese—and noticing a change in length—what’s changing is basically how much of your penis is inside your body and how much is outside.
“With extreme obesity, it’s like the obese body engulfs the penis. A full buried penis is when the entire penis shaft is buried below the surface of the skin,” says Dr. Montague.
So it’s still there, you just can’t see it all. And even though it’s still intact, a buried penis can still cause issues for you.
Other Causes of a Buried Penis
There are other reasons someone could wind up losing length beyond obesity:
Sometimes, when the prostate is removed due to prostate cancer surgery, for instance, men may lose about an inch of penile length, says Dr. Montague: “That’s the result of pulling the urethra up to attach to the bladder.” (Still, it seems like most penile shortening rebounds as time passes after your surgery, as we reported, so don’t let that stop you from getting your prostate checked.)
When scar tissue forms in the penis, often due to repeated injury—it can cause an erection to become shorter and curved and become a condition knows as Peyronie’s disease, he says. Not only can that prevent you from having sex or make it difficult to have an erection, it can cause a huge amount of stress and anxiety. Certain drugs can help by reducing the amount of scar tissue. Other drugs can be injected into the penis to reduce curvature and pain. And if the problem is severe, surgery may be an option, and there are a few types of surgery that can be done, depending on your individual physiology and issue. (Don’t overlook these other penis problems, either.)
What Are the Effects Of a Buried Penis?
Buried penis can cause depression and self-esteem issues, says Dr. Dubin. “Most men associate their penis with their masculinity, and they associate fertility with masculinity. These kinds of issues can have strong mental health implications.”
Beyond that, penetrative sex is also an issue. “These men can’t have sex or sex is very difficult,” says Dr. Montague. (Although there are other ways to have a satisfying sex life besides penetrative sex; guys with micropenis experience the same issues, and here are some strategies that help in that situation.)
It’s also hard to pee when your penis is buried, Dr. Dubin said. You might not be able to get the stream started and might have poor flow. Buried penis can also cause trouble in the form of dribbling and incontinence.
The area is also tough to clean, which leads to a host of issues which might trigger fungal or bacterial infections or skin breakdown, he adds. Buried penis can also be associated with a rare skin condition called lichen sclerosis. This is an inflammatory condition that causes itchy patches. The skin that hosts these patches becomes very delicate. It’s a chronic condition, but can be managed with medicines and phototherapy.
Buried penis might also cause chronic inflammation, which can increase your risk for penile cancer. In fact, inflammation, along with more frequent, low-grade infection as a result of the difficulty keeping clean, could make the development of cancer there more likely, according to Case Reports in Urology. In addition to an increased risk, the condition makes exams hard for doctors to do, so cancers may not be discovered early, explains a report in the journal Cureus.
How Do You Treat a Buried Penis?
If your buried penis is obesity-related, losing weight can definitely help. Still, even after weight loss, you might have excess skin and tissue that keeps your penis buried.
“Sometimes, unfortunately, in very obese people, the damage has already been done, and more aggressive treatment options have to be required,” Dr. Dubin.
That usually means surgery, which is also an option for people who don’t lose weight. Surgery involves removing the surrounding fat and tissue and repositioning the penis, Dr. Miller explains.
“That allows the penis to come outside of body,” Dr. Montague says. “In most buried penis surgeries, skin and fat are cut out.”
Having a buried penis can be embarrassing to talk about, Dr. Dubin says. It’s disturbing to have this happen and it can be challenging to your well-being. If you feel it’s getting in the way of living fully, you might also consider talking with a counselor or other mental health professional.
It’s also crucial to see your doctor if you’re experiencing it—and if you’re having urinary, hygiene, or sexual health issues because of it.
“When your penis is not visible in its resting, flaccid state, a urologist should evaluate the condition,” Dr. Miller adds. “Of course, a physician should evaluate anyone who is concerned about their urinary or sexual function.”
Cassie Shortsleeve is a skilled freelance writer and editor with almost a decade of experience reporting on all things health, fitness, and travel. A former Shape and Men’s Health editor, her work has also been published in Women’s Health, SELF, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, CNTraveler.com, and other national print and digital publications. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her drinking coffee or running around her hometown of Boston.
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.