In all likelihood, your prostate has been trouble-free for most of your life. You’ve probably had little reason to think about it and may even have been “in the dark” about it.
However, after a man reaches the age of 40, and especially
after age 60, the prostate may become a source of problems. Some of these problems — like early stages of prostate cancer — may not be accompanied by symptoms. Other types of prostate problems — an enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH) and prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) — may cause bothersome symptoms, such as difficulties in urination.
Fortunately, a simple part of the standard medical checkup — the annual digital rectal examination — can help to identify prostate problems of all sorts.
Early diagnosis is especially important in prostate cancer, the most common major cancer in American men and a potentially life-threatening disease. However, when this form of cancer is diagnosed early, the chances for a cure are greatly increased.
The purpose of this part of our website is to shed light on the prostate and prostate diseases. If you are a man over age 40, this information may help to improve the quality of your life — it may even save your life.
Facts About Prostate Disease
An enlarged prostate (called benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH) eventually develops in approximately 80 percent of all men.
Prostate cancer occurs in 1 out of 10 men.
Each year more than 30,000 men die of prostate cancer in the United States.
Prostate diseases usually occur in men over age 50 (or at age 45 for African American men or men with a family history of prostate troubles).
The yearly digital rectal examination — a quick, simple office procedure — frequently allows your doctor to detect prostate cancer before symptoms develop. At this stage, prostate cancer is curable.
What is the Prostate?
The prostate is a gland of the male reproductive system. It is located in front of the rectum and just below the bladder, the organ that stores urine. The prostate is quite small — it weighs only about an ounce — and is nearly the same size and shape as a walnut. As shown below, the prostate wraps around a tube called the urethra, which carries urine from the bladder out through the tip of the penis.
Front View of Interior of Male Urinary System and Prostate
What Is the Function Of the Prostate?
The prostate is made up largely of muscular and grandular tissues. Its main function is to produce fluid for semen, which transports sperm. During the male orgasm (climax), muscular contractions squeeze the prostate’s fluid into the urethra.
Sperm, which are produced in the testicles, are also propelled into the urethra during orgasm. The sperm-containing semen leaves the penis during ejaculation.
The Prostate: Basic Facts
What it is: a male gland the size and shape of a walnut
Where it is located: in front of the rectum, below the bladder, and surrounding the urethra
What it does: manufactures fluid for the semen
Why Are Prostate Checkups Vital?
After a man reaches the age of 50 (or at age 45 for African American men or men with a family history of prostate troubles), he is more prone to develop prostate trouble. There are two main reasons for having regular prostate checkups:
The early detection of prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is curable when caught early. But early prostate cancer causes no symptoms and can only be detected by regular checkups.
The diagnosis of prostate problems causing bothersome symptoms. BPH or prostatitis may cause annoying or painful symptoms. A prostate checkup is the first step in determining the cause of the symptoms.
The American Urological Association recommends a yearly prostate examination for every man over age 50 (or at age 45 for African American men or men with a family history of prostate troubles) and an immediately examination for any man who develops persistent symptoms. This yearly examination can help you avoid the potentially serious consequences of advanced prostate disease.
Some Symptoms That May Indicate a Prostate Problem
- a weak urinary stream
- difficulty starting urination
- frequent urination
- urgency (difficulty postponing urination)
- awakening frequently at night to urinate
- interruption of the stream (stopping and starting)
- blood in urine
- pain or burning on urination
NOTE: Prostate cancer causes no symptoms in the early stages when treatment is most likely to result in a cure.
The Prostate Examination
The doctor will first ask you questions about your medical history and about any symptoms you are having, particularly problems with urination.
Next comes a physical examination. The prostate is an internal organ so the physician cannot look at it directly. Because the prostate lies in front of the rectum, however, the doctor can feel it by inserting a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum.
This simple procedure is called a digital rectal examination. This examination allows the physician to estimate whether the prostate is enlarged or has lumps or other areas of abnormal texture. While this examination may produce momentary discomfort, it causes neither damage nor severe pain.
If the results of the digital rectal examination suggest that you may have a significant prostate problem, your doctor may refer you to a urologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases of the urinary tract and male reproductive system. The urologist may perform additional tests — blood tests, urine tests, and/or other diagnostic procedures — to determine the nature of your prostate problem.
How the Digital Rectal Examination Helps Detect Prostate Disease