The prostate is a walnut-sized gland located just below the bladder in men. Its main role is to produce a sugary component of semen. As part of its function in efficiently delivering this fluid during sexual climax, the prostate fully surrounds the urethra.
The prostate tends to enlarge as men get older and, by about the age of 50, this overgrowth of the gland can begin to cause health problems due to the central part of the organ bulging into the urethra. Difficulty in emptying the bladder occurs when the consequent narrowing of the urethra reaches a certain point.
This condition, known as benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), also leads to the bladder becoming irritable, resulting in the need for frequent partial emptying of the bladder. The bladder eventually weakens to the point that it is unable to empty itself. When this is combined with an almost completely blocked urethra, the serious condition of acute urine retention can occur. Apart from this emergency situation, partial obstruction of urine flow can cause the onset of other conditions such as bladder and kidney infections, distension of the kidneys, and urinary stones.
The cause of BPH is not completely understood at this time, but is most likely due to changes in hormone levels that occur as men age. The most striking aspect of BPH is how common it is: some studies claim that 50 percent of those in their 60s have some symptoms, while over 90 percent of men over 80 are affected by an enlarged prostate.
The symptoms often develop very slowly, so that a man may not realize that he suffers from BPH until his urethra is seriously constricted. In these cases it is possible for acute urinary retention to be triggered by the taking of certain types of medication, an attempt to "hold" urine, or the drinking of alcohol. More often, however, urinary problems, such as increased frequency, an inability to start, dribbling at the end, and a feeling of incompletion, are sure signs of the developing condition. These symptoms will generally become worse as the enlargement increases.
Ultimately, if symptoms become severe enough, a partial or complete removal of the gland is required. Less invasive surgical techniques involving the use of microwave and radio frequency energy have also proved beneficial for some sufferers. Over recent years, drugs have been developed that can successfully manage the condition for a number of people. Some medications are able to halt or even reduce prostate enlargement, while others can be used to improve the flow of urine. Saw palmetto, a traditional herbal remedy for genital and urinary problems, has enjoyed a rise in popularity since the early 1990s. Recent scientific research has verified the fruit's efficacy in the treatment of BPH for some sufferers, often producing similar results to pharmaceutical medications.