Benign (noncancerous) enlargement of the prostate, known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH for short), is the most common prostate problem in men. Almost all men will develop some enlargement of the prostate as they age.
When Does Prostate Enlargement Happen?
Overall, the number of men with BPH increases progressively with age. By age 60, 50% of men will have some signs of BPH. By age 85, 90% of men will have signs of the condition. About one third of these men will develop symptoms that require treatment.
Does BPH Increase Your Risk of Developing Prostate Cancer?
To help detect prostate cancer in its early stages, the American Cancer Society advises annual screening starting at age 50 in men who have at least a 10-year life expectancy. They also say that for men who are at high risk, such as African-American men and men with a family history of prostate cancer, screening should begin at about age 45. Men at an even higher risk, such as having several relatives with a history of prostate cancer at an early age, could begin testing at age 40.
The American Urological Association recommends against routine screening in men between ages 45 and 54, and recommends that men ages 55 to 69 should weigh the risks and benefits of screening and treatment. Those men, the AUA recommends, should be screened every two years rather than annually. Tests used to screen for prostate cancer include a blood test for a substance called prostate-specific antigen (PSA) and the digital rectal exam (DRE). The AUA does not recommend PSA screening in men over age 70 or any man with less than a 10-15-year life expectancy.
What Are the Symptoms of BPH?
Since the prostate gland surrounds the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the body, it is easy to see that enlargement of the prostate can lead to blockage of the tube. You may develop:
- Slowness or dribbling of your urinary stream
- Hesitancy or difficulty starting to urinate
- Frequent urination
- Feeling of urgency or sudden need to urinate
- Need to get up at night to urinate
As symptoms progress, you may develop:
How Is BPH Diagnosed?
After evaluating your medical history and giving you a complete physical, your doctor will perform a digital rectal examination.
Because the prostate gland is in front of the rectum, the doctor can feel if the back of the gland has any abnormalities during this examination. This enables the doctor to estimate the size of the prostate and to detect any hard areas that could be cancer.
Several studies may be done to help diagnose your condition:
How Is BPH Treated?
Patients with mild symptoms may not require treatment other than watching to make sure their condition doesn't worsen. This approach is sometimes called "watchful waiting" or surveillance. A number of treatment options are available if your symptoms are severe.
Treatments for BPH Include:
- Medication. Proscar (finasteride) was one of the first drugs used to treat BPH by shrinking the prostate gland. Avodart (dutasteride) is another similar drug that can be used for the same purpose. They both work by inhibiting the conversion of testosterone to the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which affects the growth of the prostate gland. These medications appear to be most helpful for men with larger prostates. The FDA is revising labels on Proscar and Avodart to include a warning that the drugs, while capable of reducing overall prostate cancer risk by 25%, may be linked to an increased risk of an unusual type of aggressive or high-grade prostate cancer.
More common are drugs, referred to as alpha blockers, that relax the muscle in the prostate to reduce the tension on the urine tube. These include Hytrin, Cardura, Uroxatral, and Flomax. Side effects include light-headedness and weakness. Taking both a DHT inhibitor and an alpha blocker at the same time can be more beneficial at controlling symptoms and preventing the progression of BPH than taking either drug individually.
- Surgery. A number of surgery types can remove the prostate tissue blocking the flow of urine. The most common is called transurethral resection of the prostate, or TURP. It involves removing the tissue blocking the urethra (urine tube) with a special instrument. Although TURP is effective, side effects may include bleeding, infection, impotence (inability to maintain an erection suitable for sex), and incontinence (inability to control the flow of urine). Another, less complicated procedure is transurethral incision of the prostate (TUIP). Instead of removing tissue, as with TURP, this approach involves widening the urethra by making several small cuts in the bladder neck (area where the urethra and bladder join), as well as in the prostate gland itself. This relieves some of the pressure on the urethra and improves urine flow.
Minimally invasive treatments. Newer treatments can effectively reduce the size of the prostate and relieve urinary obstruction, but are less invasive and damaging to healthy tissue than surgery. In general, less invasive procedures require less time in the hospital, result in fewer side effects, are less costly, and allow for quicker recovery. Side effects may be urinary frequency and irritation while the prostate is healing. However, many of these techniques are new. Little is known about the long-term effectiveness and complications of these procedures, which include:
- Transurethral Microwave Thermotherapy (TUMT). Microwave energy delivers temperatures above 45 degrees C (113 F) to the prostate by way of an antenna positioned in the prostate using a special catheter (tube). Cool water circulates around the catheter which protects the urethra and helps keep you reasonably comfortable throughout the procedure. The entire procedure is computer-controlled, based on temperature recordings obtained in the urethra and rectum. This technique is performed in your doctor's office and takes approximately 90 minutes. Patients are generally given medicine to prevent pain and relieve anxiety. The most common complaints during the treatment are an urge to urinate and a burning sensation in the penis. There are two programs: "standard treatment" or "high-energy" treatment. High-energy treatment delivers more energy to the prostate, which generally provides better results and improved flow, but patients are likely to have more side effects in the recovery period.
- Interstitial Laser Coagulation. ILC uses a specially designed laser fiber to deliver heat to the interior of the prostate. The laser fiber is inserted into the prostate using instruments placed in the urethra. The procedure is usually done in the operating room, under anesthesia to numb the pain but not put you to sleep. This technique allows the surgeon to view the prostate directly and to treat specific areas of enlargement.
- Transurethral Needle Ablation (TUNA). This technique uses low-level radiofrequency energy delivered through two small needles to ablate, or burn away, an area of the enlarged prostate.
- Transurethral Electrovaporization. This technique uses electrical energy applied through an electrode to rapidly heat prostate tissue, turning the tissue cells into steam. This allows the doctor to vaporize an area of the enlarged tissue and relieve urinary obstruction.
- Intraurethral stents. Stents (wire devices shaped like springs or coils) are placed within the prostate channel (where the urethra runs through the gland) to help keep the channel from tightening around the urethra.
- UroLift system. The UroLift system is the first permanent implant used to treat BPH. It works by pulling back the prostate tissue that is pressing on the urethra and impeding urine flow. Two studies of men with the system showed a 30% increase in urine flow and participants reported a decrease in symptoms and a better quality of life in the two years after the study.
In addition to these medical and surgical treatments, use of the herb saw palmetto shows promise in some men as a treatment for BPH. Although the exact mechanism of action is unknown, it is thought that the extract from saw palmetto berries appears to block the formation of DHT, the hormone responsible for prostate gland growth. However, studies show inconsistent results. While some studies show it to be as effective as Proscar, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed it caused no improvements when compared to a placebo (inactive pill). More studies are underway to further investigate the effects of this herb.