Prostate: What Is It? What Is Its Function?
The prostate gland is a complex organ found within the male reproductive system that creates and secretes semen, which is one half of the reproduction equation. The prostate relies on male hormones, namely testosterone produced in the testicles, for normal growth and function. Testosterone also attributes to male sex characteristics, such as low vocal tones and facial and body hair. Located adjacent to the bladder and the urethra, the prostate can also affect the overall function and health of the urinary system.
Found below the bladder, midway between the rectum and the base of the penis, the prostate gland is approximately the size of a walnut (4 cm by 3 cm by 2 cm). A healthy prostate gland weighs 20 grams and contains 15 to 20 branched glands which in turn form the four prostate lobes: anterior, posterior, lateral and median. Although the prostate is divided into lobes, doctors typically utilize three zones to identify the area in which they are referring.
The first zone, known as the peripheral zone, is where most prostate cancers begin and is best identified as the zone doctors can locate with a digital rectal exam. The second zone, known as the transition zone, makes up less than 5 percent of the total prostate volume. However, the transition zone is where patients suffering an enlarged prostate will see that total volume percentage increase because this is where the majority of enlarged prostates see the most growth. Lastly, the third zone, known as the central zone, is rarely discussed as it is not linked to most prostate health problems.
The prostate’s primary role in the reproductive system is to produce semen. Attached to the testicles, the prostate gland thrusts semen — a mixture of prostate fluids and seminal fluids — into the urethra and out through the penis. This reproductive mixture contains high volumes of zinc and potassium with a mixture of citric acid and fructose. Combined together to deliver sperm, these ingredients also serve to reduce the acidity of the vaginal canal and boost fertility.
Due to the prostate’s close proximity to urinary and sexual organs, oftentimes the health of a male’s prostate directly reflects his overall urinary function. When it comes to prostate health, there are three main ailments that can affect prostate well-being: enlargement, prostatitis, and cancer.
Prostate enlargement, which is also known as benign prostatic hypertrophy or BPH, commonly affects older men, beginning around age 50. When the prostate enlarges, it puts pressure onto the neighboring urethra, causing difficulty urinating. Force on the urethra can hinder the flow of urine. In extreme cases, the urethra may be closed completely making urination impossible. Prostate enlargement can be treated based on the severity with some males requiring only medication while other, more extreme cases can require the removal of the prostate. Although prostate enlargement creates discomfort, it is a condition that can be managed.
Unlike prostate enlargement, prostatitis is more commonly found in younger men, although it can still affect older men as well. Chronic prostatitis, which is characterized by inflammation, which lasts more than three months, is the number one reason men under age 50 see a urologist. Simply put, prostatitis is an inflammation of the prostate gland, though the cause varies in different men. While suffering from prostatitis, men will have frequent urination impulses, trouble urinating, pain or burning sensations while urinating, feverish chills and other bodily pains. In most cases, prostatitis is treated with antibiotics associated with the specific type of prostatitis the patient has. In rare cases, where the prostatitis completely cuts off the flow of urine through the urethra, surgical removal of the infection may be required. Although prostatitis can be painful, it is a treatable condition with multiple options to relieve the uncomfortable symptoms.
With symptoms almost identical to other benign prostate conditions, prostate cancer can cause frequent or weak urination. In the United States, nearly 14 percent of men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetimes. Second only to skin cancer, prostate cancer is a common male cancer and the third most common cancer overall. Prostate cancer is more frequently found in older men. Similar to most cancers, the earlier the detection, the better the patient’s outcome. Statistically speaking, males who identify their prostate cancer in the localized stage — meaning it has not spread outside of the prostate — have a 100 percent five-year survival rate. As of 2011, four-fifths of all males with prostate cancer were diagnosed in the localized stage. Data studying prostate cancer from 2005 to 2011 shows a 98.9 percent survival rate for all prostate cancer patients, regardless of stage.
Although small in size, the prostate gland is vital to the functioning and well-being of the male urinary system. As the male body ages, the prostate becomes more susceptible to conditions ranging from inflammation to full-blown cancer. Luckily, most prostate illnesses are manageable and treatable, with few resulting in death.