A digital (finger) rectal examination is done to check for problems with organs or other structures in the pelvis and lower belly. During the examination, the doctor gently puts a lubricated, gloved finger of one hand into the rectum. He or she may use the other hand to press on the lower belly or pelvic area.
A digital rectal exam may be done for men as part of a complete physical examination to check the prostate gland. It is done for women as part of a gynecological examination to check the uterus and ovaries. Other organs, such as the bladder, can sometimes also be felt during a digital rectal exam.
Why It Is Done
A digital rectal exam (DRE) is done to:
- Check for growths in or enlargement of the prostate gland in men. A tumor in the prostate can often be felt as a hard lump. This may be done as part of a regular examination or to check on symptoms, such as a change in urination. Not all problems of the prostate can be felt through the rectum.
- Check for problems in a woman's reproductive organs, such as the uterus and ovaries. It is often done during a regular pelvic examination and Pap test. It may also be done to check on symptoms, such as pelvic pain or vaginal bleeding.
- Help find the cause of symptoms such as rectal bleeding (blood in the stool), belly or pelvic pain, a change in urination, or a change in bowel habits.
- Check for hemorrhoids or growths, such as cancer, in the rectum. DRE alone is not used to diagnose colorectal cancer. Also, a DRE may not find internal hemorrhoids because they are soft and hard to feel. A sigmoidoscopy may be needed to diagnose internal hemorrhoids.
How To Prepare
If you have hemorrhoids, tell your doctor before the examination begins. Your doctor will try not to bother your hemorrhoids.
How It Is Done
For a digital rectal exam, you will take off your clothes below the waist. You will be given a gown to wear.
- A man is often examined while he stands, bending forward at the waist. A man can also be examined while lying on his left side, with his knees bent toward his chest.
- A woman is often examined while lying on her back on an examination table, with her feet raised and supported by stirrups. A rectovaginal exam is often done for women so that organs in the pelvic area can be checked. But a digital rectal exam also can be done with a woman lying on her left side, especially if a pelvic exam is not done at the same time.
Your doctor gently puts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum. He or she may use the other hand to press on the lower belly or pelvic area to feel for tenderness or problems, such as enlargement, hardness, or growths.
How It Feels
Men may feel some discomfort or pain during a digital rectal exam (DRE). Your doctor must press firmly on the prostate to feel for problems. This pressure may make you feel the need to urinate. The examination may be painful if the prostate gland is swollen or irritated.
Most women do not find a DRE painful. You may feel some pressure or discomfort when your doctor presses on your belly to feel the internal organs.
A small amount of bleeding from the rectum may occur after an examination, especially if hemorrhoids or anal fissures are present.
In rare cases, you may feel lightheaded and faint. This feeling is called vasovagal syncope and is caused by fear or pain when your doctor puts a finger into the rectum. Vasovagal syncope is more likely to happen if you are standing up.
A digital (finger) rectal examination is done to check for problems of organs or other structures in the pelvis and lower belly. During the examination, the doctor gently puts a lubricated, gloved finger of one hand into the rectum.
No problems such as organ enlargements or growths are felt.
Problems such as organ enlargements or growths are felt.
What Affects the Test
Hemorrhoids or anal fissures may cause discomfort during a digital rectal exam.
What To Think About
- If a digital rectal exam (DRE) is being done to screen for prostate cancer, the examination may be combined with a blood test for prostate-specific antigen (PSA). The two tests may be done together to check for prostate cancer. To learn more, see the topic Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA).
- Other tests may need to be done after a DRE if problems are suspected, including colon cancer. You may need a test for blood in the stool or a visual examination of the anus, rectum, or colon (anoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy).
- A transrectal ultrasound and a prostate biopsy may be done if the DRE or PSA test shows that prostate cancer may be present.
Other Works Consulted
- McQuaid KR (2016). Approach to the patient with gastrointestinal disease. In L Goldman, A Schafer, eds., Goldman-Cecil Medicine, 25th ed., vol. 1, pp. 850–866. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Current as of: August 21, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Jimmy Ruiz, MD - Medical Oncology, Hematology