What is the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test?
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein produced by cells of the prostate gland. The PSA test measures the level of PSA in the blood. Because PSA is produced by the body and can be used to detect disease, it is sometimes called a biological marker or a tumor marker.
It is normal for men to have a low level of PSA in their blood; however, prostate cancer or benign (not cancerous) conditions can increase a man’s PSA level. As men age, both benign prostate conditions and prostate cancer become more common. The most frequent benign prostate conditions are prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) (enlargement of the prostate). There is no evidence that prostatitis or BPH causes cancer, but it is possible for a man to have one or both of these conditions and to develop prostate cancer as well.
A man’s PSA level alone does not give doctors enough information to distinguish between benign prostate conditions and cancer. However, the doctor will take the result of the PSA test into account when deciding whether to check further for signs of prostate cancer.
Why is the PSA test performed?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of the PSA test along with a digital rectal exam (DRE) to help detect prostate cancer in men 50 years of age or older. During a DRE, a doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum and feels the prostate gland through the rectal wall to check for bumps or abnormal areas. Doctors often use the PSA test and DRE as prostate cancer screening tests; together, these tests can help doctors detect prostate cancer in men who have no symptoms of the disease.
The FDA has also approved the use of the PSA test to monitor patients who have a history of prostate cancer to see if the cancer has recurred (come back). If a man’s PSA level begins to rise, it may be the first sign of recurrence. Such a “biochemical relapse” typically precedes clinical signs and symptoms of a relapse by months or years. However, a single elevated PSA measurement in a patient with a history of prostate cancer does not always mean the cancer has come back. A man who has been treated for prostate cancer should discuss an elevated PSA level with his doctor. The doctor may recommend repeating the PSA test or performing other tests to check for evidence of a recurrence. The doctor may look for a trend of rising PSA measurements over time rather than a single elevated PSA level.
How are PSA test results reported?
PSA test results show the level of PSA detected in the blood. These results are usually reported as nanograms of PSA per milliliter (ng/mL) of blood. In the past, most doctors considered a PSA level below 4.0 ng/mL as normal. In one large study, however, prostate cancer was diagnosed in 15.2 percent of men with a PSA level at or below 4.0 ng/mL (2). Fifteen percent of these men, or approximately 2.3 percent overall, had high-grade cancers (2). In another study, 25 to 35 percent of men who had a PSA level between 4.1 and 9.9 ng/mL and who underwent a prostate biopsy were found to have prostate cancer, meaning that 65 to 75 percent of the remaining men did not have prostate cancer (3).
Thus, there is no specific normal or abnormal PSA level. In addition, various factors, such as inflammation (e.g., prostatitis), can cause a man’s PSA level to fluctuate. It is also common for PSA values to vary somewhat from laboratory to laboratory. Consequently, one abnormal PSA test result does not necessarily indicate the need for a prostate biopsy. In general, however, the higher a man’s PSA level, the more likely it is that cancer is present. Furthermore, if a man’s PSA level continues to rise over time, other tests may be needed.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.