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Prolactin

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Also known as: PRL
Formal name: Prolactin

The Test Sample

What is being tested?

Prolactin is a hormone produced by the anterior portion of the pituitary gland, a grape-sized organ found at the base of the brain. Normally present in low amounts in men and non-pregnant women, prolactin's primary role is to promote lactation (breast milk production). This test measures the amount of prolactin in the blood.

Prolactin secretion is regulated and inhibited by the brain chemical dopamine. The prolactin level is usually high throughout pregnancy and just after childbirth. During pregnancy, the hormones prolactin, estrogen, and progesterone stimulate breast milk development. Following childbirth, prolactin helps initiate and maintain the breast milk supply. If a woman does not breastfeed, her prolactin level soon drops back to pre-pregnancy levels. If she does nurse, suckling by the infant plays an important role in the release of prolactin. There is a feedback mechanism between how often the baby nurses and the amount of prolactin secreted by the pituitary as well as the amount of milk produced.

A common cause of an abnormally elevated prolactin level is a prolactinoma, a tumor of the pituitary gland that causes excess production of prolactin. Prolactinoma is the most common type of pituitary tumor and is usually benign. They develop more frequently in women but are also found in men. Problems resulting from them can arise both from the unintended effects of excess prolactin, such as milk production in a woman who is not pregnant or nursing and, rarely, in a man (galactorrhea) and from the size and location of the tumor.

If the anterior pituitary gland and/or the tumor enlarge significantly, it can put pressure on the optic nerve, causing headaches and visual disturbances, and it can interfere with the other hormones that the pituitary gland produces. In women, prolactinomas can cause infertility and irregularities in menstruation while in men, these tumors can cause a gradual loss in sexual function and libido. If left untreated, prolactinomas may eventually damage the surrounding tissues.

How is the sample collected for testing?

A blood sample is obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm.

NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.

Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

No test preparation is needed, but the sample is typically collected 3 to 4 hours after waking.