Digital Rectal Exam

A digital rectal exam (DRE) is a routine screening test for both men and women that may be able to detect:

  • Prostate gland abnormalities:
    • Abnormal growths
    • Enlargement (benign prostatic hypertrophy)
    • Inflammation (prostatitis)
  • Tumors of the cervix, uterus and ovaries
  • Abnormalities in the bladder and rectum (growths, polyps and abscesses)
  • Rectal or vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits

DREs are also used in conjunction with other tests to diagnose prostate, colon and rectal cancer.

There is no preparation necessary for a DRE although patients should notify the physician if they have hemorrhoids. The procedure generally presents no risk to the patient though some people experience a little bleeding if they have hemorrhoids or anal fissures.

What to Expect

DREs are generally brief. The physician gently inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum, using the other hand to feel for tenderness or discomfort in the stomach or pelvic area.

Men are positioned either lying on their side with knees bent toward the chest or standing, bent at the waist. Male patients may experience an urge to urinate and brief discomfort if the prostate gland is swollen or inflamed.

Women are positioned on their back with their feet raised and placed in stirrups, as they would be for a regular pelvic examination.

If an Abnormality Is Found

If the physician detects an abnormality, such as a lump or hardness, further tests may be needed. Depending on the area of concern, these tests may include a:

  • Prostate-specific antigen test (PSA)

Digital Rectal Exam Timetable

For women, a DRE is generally performed during an annual well-woman exam.

For men, the American Cancer Society recommends an annual DRE at:

  • Age 40 for men with several close relatives with prostate cancer or cancer at an early age
  • Age 45 for men at high risk for all cancers
  • Age 50 for all men who do not have major health problems

Check with your primary care physician or urologist to determine a timetable that's right for you and your family history.