What is the prostate and what does it do?

The prostate is a small, walnut-sized gland found in the male body. It is situated underneath the bladder and surrounds part of the urethra (the tube that urine and semen is carried through before it leaves the body).

Prostate development and growth is controlled by the male sex hormone, testosterone, which is produced in the testicles. The prostate gland plays an important role in the male reproductive system as it makes the thick white fluid that carries and nourishes the sperm. It also produces a protein called prostate-specific antigen (PSA) this is used to turn the semen to a liquid.

What conditions can develop due to problems with the prostate?

  • Benign prostate enlargement (BPE)

This condition refers to an enlarged prostate gland. It can impact on the urinary system thus potentially causing several symptoms including difficulty passing urine, a feeling of needing to pass urine more frequently and difficulty fully emptying the bladder.

The exact cause of BPE is not known, although it is thought to be linked to the change in the levels of hormones in the body as a man gets older, however not all men develop BPE.

Not all instances of BPE require treatment as some symptoms are mild and manageable. Whereas some men will experience unpleasant symptoms that impact on their quality of life.

The symptoms of BPE can be treated with medication. Your doctor may also suggest lifestyle changes such as limiting the amount of alcohol, caffeine and fizzy drinks your consume; reducing the number of artificial sweeteners you use and drinking less in the evening. In severe cases an operation, called a transurethral resection of the prostate or TURP, may be required to remove the inner core of the prostate.

An enlarged prostate does not increase the likelihood of going on to develop prostate cancer.

  • Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer found in men in the UK. It tends to affect men over the age of 50 and is only very rarely seen in younger men. The condition can lay dormant for several years and grow at a very slow rate. However, in some cases the cancer can grow at a rapid rate and spread to other parts of the body.

Prostate cancer can cause an increased need to pass urine, straining when urinating and a feeling that the bladder has not been fully emptied. Any one of these symptoms should be promptly reported to your GP so that they can investigate the cause.

The treatment used to fight prostate cancer can differ depending on whether it has spread and the severity of symptoms. In some cases patients will be closely monitored before any treatment is recommended.

How is a prostate problem diagnosed?

If you present to your GP with symptoms of a problem with the prostate they may wish to examine you. This can involve a digital rectal examination (DRE) where the doctor feels the size and texture of the prostate gland by inserting a finger into the rectum.

They may also want to carry out a urine and/or a blood test. The blood test frequently carried out to check for prostate abnormalities is called a PSA test and checks the levels of PSA being produced.

If further investigation is required your doctor may arrange for an ultrasound scan, MRI scan or a biopsy of the prostate.

Prostate problems can lead to difficulties passing urine and erectile dysfunction.

How to keep the prostate healthy

Following an active and healthy lifestyle may help to keep your prostate functioning as it should.  

Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing prostate cancer and other cancers. Therefore it is important to try and maintain a healthy weight. Follow a balanced diet and take part in regular exercise. If you are concerned about your weight you should speak to your doctor.

Your ethnic background and your family history may be linked to an increased risk of developing prostate problems. Those from African-Caribbean and African descent and those with a close family member diagnosed with prostate cancer may be more at risk of going on to develop prostate cancer.

It is important to inform your doctor if you experience any changes in urinary habits or pain in the back, hips or legs. These symptoms may be unrelated to your prostate but your GP will be able to check for any potential underlying problems.