The prostate is a walnut-sized gland located between the bladder and the penis. A part of the male reproductive system, it produces a component of the fluid present in semen. It is not uncommon for individuals to experience urinary symptoms as this gland grows larger as we age — this is called benign prostate enlargement or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). The condition tends to affect men over the age of 50. As troubling as the symptoms are, several medications effectively treat BPH.
As the prostate gland grows bigger, it can pinch the urethra, which runs through its center. When this happens, the flow of urine becomes slower and less forceful. Also, the bladder walls grow thicker as men age. In some cases, benign prostate enlargement can lead to urinary tract, bladder, or kidney problems.
Interestingly, the size of the prostate does not determine the severity of symptoms. If the gland presses upon the urethra, men may experience obstructive symptoms such as trouble urinating, straining or pushing when peeing, weak urine stream, or dribbling at the end of urination. With bladder involvement, men may also experience frequent urination, particularly at night.
Aging significantly increases the risk of BPH. While the condition is rare in men under the age of 40, about one-third will develop moderate to severe symptoms by the time they reach 60. Other risk factors include diabetes, heart disease, and family history of BPH.
Men should contact their doctor when experiencing any urinary problems. Even if the symptoms are not particularly bothersome, it is a good idea to identify and treat the underlying cause, or at least ensure the doctor is aware of it for the future. Men who cannot pass any urine should seek immediate medical attention.
For most men, the prostate gland continues to grow throughout their lives. A normal part of the aging process, experts believe this growth is due to cell growth and changes in sex hormone levels. In cases where the prostate grows large enough to pinch the urethra, men will experience urinary symptoms. As with most conditions, those with a family history of prostate problems will have a higher risk of developing BPH.
Physicians diagnose benign prostate enlargement by conducting a physical exam. As part of the examination, they inspect the rectum, which allows them to estimate the size and shape of the prostate. Other tests used in diagnosing BPH include urinalysis, prostatic biopsy, cystoscopy, and urography. In many cases, doctors will also perform a prostate-specific antigen test to rule out prostate cancer.
Treatment is typically not needed for mild BPH. If symptoms are severe, however, medications will be necessary. If drug therapy is not adequate for relieving symptoms, a doctor may choose to remove a part of the prostate by performing minimally invasive surgery.
Untreated BPH can lead to urinary retention, urinary tract infections, and kidney and bladder stones. In severe cases, the prostate may also block the urinary tract. Men run the risk of kidney damage if there is prolonged pressure in the bladder. Fortunately, having an enlarged prostate does not increase one's risk of prostate cancer.
While home remedies will not prevent the prostate from growing larger, they can be effective at reducing symptoms. In addition to practicing “double voiding”—that is, urinating as much as possible, then relaxing for a few seconds before trying again—it may help to avoid alcohol and caffeine, as both act as diuretics. If possible, avoid over-the-counter medications such as decongestants and antihistamines, as they make urination difficult.
Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to prevent benign prostate enlargement. That said, losing weight may prevent BPH, as excess body fat affects cell growth and hormone levels. According to some studies, regular exercise and a healthy diet may also play a role in preventing the condition.
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