Digital Rectal Exam (DRE)

A digital rectal exam (DRE) is a screening test that allows your doctor to check for abnormalities and cancer of the prostate gland and/or the lower colon and rectum in men. For women, a DRE may be done as part of a routine gynecologic exam or if she has had symptoms. Her doctor will check for cancer of the uterus and ovaries, in association with a vaginal examination, as well as check for signs of abnormalities in the lower colon and rectum. A nurse is often in the room with the doctor during the examination.

Questions to ask your doctor

Before having a DRE, consider asking your doctor what further tests (such as a colonoscopy or barium enema) will be necessary if any abnormalities of the bowel are detected, or consider asking your doctor the following questions:

  • What will happen during the DRE?
  • How long will the procedure take?
  • Will it be painful?
  • When will I learn the results of the DRE? How will they be communicated to me?
  • What further tests will be necessary if the results indicate cancer?

Preparing for a DRE

A DRE does not require advance preparation. You should tell your doctor if you have hemorrhoids or anal fissures (broken skin around the anus), which might be aggravated by the DRE. Talk with your doctor about any concerns you have about the DRE.

During the Procedure

A DRE takes only a few minutes to complete. It is performed without sedation; your doctor may ask you to relax and take a deep breath as the procedure begins. You will be asked to take off your clothes below the waist. You will be given a gown to wear or cloth to wrap around you during the DRE.

A man is examined in one of two ways: while standing, bending forward at the waist, leaning against an exam table; or while lying on his side on an examination table, with his knees pulled up to his chest in the fetal position.

A woman is usually examined while lying on her back on an examination table, with her feet in raised stirrups, as part of a general gynecologic examination.

The doctor will gently insert a lubricated, gloved finger into your rectum. For men, this is to feel the back of the prostate or the adjacent colon/rectum. For women, this is to feel the reproductive organs, as well as the bowel. The doctor may also feel for abnormalities in the internal organs by applying pressure on the lower abdomen or pelvic area with the other hand.

If a man's prostate is enlarged, he may feel some discomfort or mild pain when the doctor examines his prostate. (Pain is unusual unless there is a large, inflamed, infected or cancerous prostate.) He may also feel the need to urinate. A woman may feel discomfort, but typically no pain, when the doctor presses on her abdomen to feel her internal organs.

After a DRE

You can resume your normal activities immediately after a DRE. Slight bleeding from the rectum may occur, particularly if you have hemorrhoids or anal fissures. Significant rectal bleeding should be reported to the doctor.