What can cause an elevated PSA?

Key takeaways

  • The PSA test measures the quantity of a protein produced by cells of the prostate gland in a blood sample. It is typically used to screen for and monitor prostate cancer in men.
  • Elevated PSA levels can also be caused by non-cancerous conditions such as age, prostatitis, benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), and urinary tract infections.
  • To use an elevated PSA as the basis for ordering a prostate biopsy, it is now recommended that the level of PSA is monitored over time and any changes are monitored regularly, with a suspicious lump detected during a DRE being a more accurate basis for suspecting prostate cancer.

Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein produced by cells of the prostate gland. It is synthesized by both normal and malignant cells and released in blood. The PSA test measures the quantity of this protein in a blood sample, which is then reported in nanograms of PSA per milliliter (ng/mL) of blood. A PSA level of 4.0 ng/mL and below is often considered normal.

What causes an elevated PSA level?

The blood PSA level is typically elevated in men with prostate cancer. Therefore, the test is usually ordered in conjunction with the digital rectal exam (DRE) to screen men that are asymptomatic for prostate cancer. It is also recommended for monitoring the progression of prostate cancer in men already diagnosed with the disease, and to test men with prostate symptoms to find out the nature of their problem.

Apart from prostate cancer, there are a number of conditions that may increase the PSA level. For instance, PSA is elevated with age, usually due to enlargement of prostate tissue over the years. Prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate), which is a condition common in men under 50 years due to bacterial infection, tends to result in increased PSA level. Other conditions that lead to increased PSA level include benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), urinary tract infections, prostate injury, recent ejaculation, high parathyroid hormone, and surgical procedures.

Normal versus abnormal PSA level

Although a PSA level of 4.0 ng/mL or below is often considered normal, the level of the protein can vary over time in the blood of the same man, making what is usually taken as the normal range less accurate. In fact, studies have indicated that some men with PSA level below 4.0 ng/mL have prostate cancer while many men with levels above 4.0 ng/mL have been found free of the cancer.

Besides, due to the various factors that may cause a fluctuation of PSA level, such as age, prostatitis, BPH, and urinary tract infections, having a fixed normal range for all men is unreliable in some cases. Equally, since PSA test results vary from one laboratory to another and because drugs like Dutasteride (Avodart) and Finasteride (Proscar) that are used to treat BPH tend to lower PSA level, a single elevated PSA may not be very helpful.

Therefore, to use an elevated PSA as the basis for ordering a prostate biopsy to ascertain whether prostate cancer is present, it is now recommended that the level of PSA is monitored over time. A continuous trend of increasing PSA in blood over a prolonged period of time, together with a suspicious lump detected via the DRE, is a more accurate basis for suspecting prostate cancer and ordering for a prostate biopsy.

Elevated PSA in prostate cancer screening

For men without symptoms of prostate cancer, an elevated PSA level may be followed by a repeat PSA test to confirm the original finding. And if the PSA level is still high, the urologist may recommend that more PSA tests and digital rectal exams be done at regular intervals so that any changes can be monitored over time. If the PSA level continues to rise or if a suspicious lump is found during a digital rectal exam, the doctor may now order for confirmatory tests.

For example, a urine test may be requested to establish if the rising PSA level is due to a urinary tract infection. Likewise, imaging tests like cystoscopy, x-rays or transrectal ultrasound may help to show the size and nature of any lump.

And if the tests show there could be prostate cancer, the urologist will recommend a prostate biopsy.  Multiple samples of prostate tissue are collected by inserting hollow needles into the prostate through the wall of the rectum. The samples are examined by a pathologist to confirm whether the cells are cancerous or not.

Elevated PSA in monitoring prostate cancer treatment

After treatment for prostate cancer, the urologist will want to continue to monitor the PSA level to establish whether the disease is recurring or not. An elevated PSA level after treatment is usually the first sign that the cancer is recurring. In fact, an elevated PSA after treatment often happens many months or years before the signs and symptoms of prostate cancer recurrence show.

A single elevated PSA test isn’t enough to conclude that the cancer has recurred. So the urologist will recommend that the test be repeated a number of times, and be done together with other tests, to check for evidence of prostate cancer recurrence. Repeated PSA tests help the doctor to establish a trend over time instead of relying on a single elevated PSA level.

At Advanced Urology Institute, we are committed to the highest standards of urologic care. We make sure to use the right diagnostic and treatment tests, techniques and procedures to deliver the best possible outcomes for our patients. That is why when it comes to the PSA test, we do not rely on a single elevated result to draw conclusions about your prostate health.

It is our practice to monitor elevated PSA for a prolonged period of time and to use the test alongside risks factors (age and family history) and other tests like the digital rectal exam, before we can make conclusions regarding your prostate health. We believe that an elevated PSA level is a valuable tool for early detection of prostate cancer and for successful treatment of the condition if the test is used properly. For more information on prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment, visit the site “Advanced Urology Institute.”