Doctors can detect and treat prostate cancer early. MRI scans and biopsies are methods doctors use for diagnosing and managing the condition. Both techniques have different benefits and limitations.

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among males in the United States. It develops in the prostate, a small gland between the penis and the bladder that produces seminal fluid in males. The disease causes cells in the prostate to grow uncontrollably, which affects prostate functioning and may spread to other organs and body parts.

People with prostate cancer experience various symptoms, including frequently needing to urinate, weak urination streams, and blood in the urine.

Doctors use several tests to diagnose and manage prostate cancer. These tests involve checking for the presence and severity of cancerous cells. Biopsies and MRI scans are two examples of these tests.

Read on to learn more about prostate biopsies and MRI scans, including how they help with diagnosis.

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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to create images of the inside of the body. Biopsies involve doctors taking a tissue sample and sending it off for analysis. Both methods have benefits and limitations that make their use dependent on the situation.

Doctors typically recommend a prostate biopsy if someone shows signs of prostate cancer in a blood or other test. The procedure is invasive because it involves inserting a hollow needle into the prostate to remove the tissue for analysis under a microscope.

The doctor will use an imaging technique to guide the biopsy procedure, which can include a transrectal ultrasound, MRI, or a combination of both. MRI scans by themselves are less invasive as they require no needles or any penetration of the skin.

Biopsies are often the main way of diagnosing prostate cancer. However, doctors may use less invasive techniques, such as MRI, to attempt to initially detect the condition. Additionally, they can also use MRI scans to monitor the condition or its severity.

MRI scans involve the person lying down in a tube while a scanner uses magnetic and radio waves to collect an image from the prostate. MRI scans are useful for:

  • checking for signs of cancer
  • guiding other procedures, such as a biopsy
  • assessing the spread of the cancer

Newer types of MRI can also provide more detailed information. For example, multiparametric MRIs (mpMRIs) are more accurate for picturing prostate cancer and provide information on how quickly it may grow.

MRI scans are less invasive than biopsies. Doctors may use them to determine whether a biopsy is necessary in some cases.

MRI tests are typically painless. However, they do involve lying in a narrow cylinder, which may cause some discomfort. The machine also makes loud clicking noises that can be unpleasant. Doctors may need to insert a probe inside the rectum for the scan, which can be uncomfortable.

Prostate biopsies involve doctors taking multiple small tissue samples from the prostate, typically by inserting a hollow needle into the rectum. Biopsies are accurate and the main way that doctors confirm whether someone has prostate cancer or not.

MRIs provide important information but are indirect measures of cancer, which is why biopsies are necessary.

Doctors use information from the biopsy to calculate a Gleason score, which determines how normal cells look under a microscope and the likelihood of them spreading. They use this information with other tests to assign a grade to the cancer.

Combining MRIs and biopsies can provide a more comprehensive picture of prostate cancer.

Initially, a doctor may use a mpMRI scan. This is a special type of MRI that can provide a more detailed image of the prostate. Using this scan may help to prevent people from receiving unnecessary biopsies.

Prostate biopsies typically involve inserting a needle through the rectum or urethra to access the prostate gland. Medical imaging techniques are necessary to guide the procedure. Doctors may use MRI scans during the procedure to see where the needle is and precisely position the sampling instrument.

Doctors need biopsies to confirm a diagnosis but can get additional information from MRI scans. For example, a doctor may order an MRI following a biopsy to provide more detail on the location, spread, and severity of the cancer.

The procedures for each test will vary depending on various factors, including the healthcare professional.

A prostate biopsy will typically involve passing a needle or ultrasound probe through the rectum. However, other methods involve passing the needle through the skin between the scrotum and rectum or the urethra.

The procedures typically involve the person lying on an examination table while a doctor inserts the needle. Doctors will use imaging scans to guide the needle. Depending on the biopsy approach a doctor uses, they will either insert the needle through the rectum, a small incision, or a flexible tube up the urethra. The procedure can cause some pain and may require an anesthetic.

The biopsy only takes around 10 minutes but may require taking antibiotics for up to 2 days after the procedure. Some people will experience soreness, bleeding, and discolored semen for several weeks after the procedure. Doctors will provide results within 1–3 days. A positive result indicates the presence of cancer.

MRI scans take around 45 minutes and require visiting a hospital or clinic. It involves removing all metal objects from the body and lying on a movable examination table. The person will need an injection of contrast fluid. In some cases, a radiologist will insert a lubricated probe in the rectum that will inflate before the scan.

The movable table goes into a large cylindrical machine that performs the scan. The machine makes loud clicking and knocking sounds throughout the scan.

Medical staff may ask the person to wait before leaving the facility to check the images are clear enough for analysis. The procedure is painless and should provide no lasting side effects.

There are several other tests that a doctor may use in diagnosing or managing prostate cancer, including:

  • prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests, which check for signs of cancer in the blood
  • genetic testing, which tells doctors whether someone has certain genetic changes that increase cancer risk
  • bone scans, which show when the cancer causes damage to bones
  • PET scans, which use radioactive substances to show images of inside the body
  • lymph node biopsies, which involve removing one or more lymph nodes to check for cancerous cells

Prostate biopsies and MRI scans have different uses and benefits in diagnosing and managing prostate cancer.

A prostate biopsy involves taking a tissue sample from the prostate. It is a direct measure of cancer that doctors use to confirm a diagnosis. It helps doctors to determine the severity.

MRI scans are less invasive than biopsies and involve using magnetic and radio waves to picture the prostate. These scans are important for checking for signs of prostate cancer, its severity, and how far it has spread. MRI scans can also help guide a doctor when performing a biopsy.