The prostate is a walnut-sized gland that forms part of the male reproductive system. The gland is made of two lobes, or regions, enclosed by an outer layer of tissue. The prostate is located in front of the rectum and just below the bladder, where urine is stored. The prostate also surrounds the urethra, the canal through which urine passes out of the body.
Scientists do not know all of the prostate's functions. One of its main roles, though, is to squeeze fluid into the urethra as sperm move through during sexual climax. This fluid, which helps make up semen, energizes the sperm and makes the vaginal canal less acidic.
The cause of BPH is not well understood. No definite information on risk factors for the condition exists. For centuries, it has been known that BPH occurs mainly in older men and that it doesn't develop in men whose testes were removed before puberty. For this reason, some researchers believe that factors related to aging and the testes may spur the development of BPH.
(For more information about the possible causes, see the eMedTV article Cause of Enlarged Prostate.)
Many BPH symptoms stem from obstruction of the urethra and gradual loss of bladder function, which results in incomplete emptying of the bladder. These symptoms vary, but the most common ones involve changes or problems with urination, such as:
- A hesitant, interrupted, or weak stream
- Urgency and leaking or dribbling
- More frequent urination, especially at night.
The size of the prostate does not always determine how severe the obstruction or the symptoms will be. Some men with greatly enlarged glands have little obstruction and few symptoms, while others, whose glands are less enlarged, have more blockage and greater problems.
Sometimes a man may not know he has any obstruction until he suddenly finds himself unable to urinate at all. This condition, called acute urinary retention, may be triggered by taking over-the-counter cold or allergy medicines. Such medicines contain a decongestant drug known as a sympathomimetic. A potential side effect of this drug may be to prevent the bladder opening from relaxing and allowing urine to empty. When partial obstruction is present, urinary retention also can be brought on by alcohol, cold temperatures, or a long period of immobility.
It is important to tell your doctor about urinary problems such as these. In eight out of ten cases, these symptoms suggest BPH, but they can also signal other, more serious conditions that require prompt treatment. These conditions, including prostate cancer, can only be ruled out by a doctor's exam.
Severe BPH can cause serious problems over time. Urine retention and strain on the bladder can lead to:
- Urinary tract infections
- Bladder or kidney damage
- Bladder stones
If the bladder is permanently damaged, treatment for BPH may be ineffective. When the condition is found in its earlier stages, there is a lower risk of developing such complications.