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Colorectal Cancer Health Center

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Digital Rectal Exam

The digital rectal exam is a test used to:

  • Help detect growths or enlargement of the prostate gland in men
  • Look for the cause of symptoms such as rectal bleeding (blood in the stool), abdominal or pelvic pain, or a change in bowel habits
  • Evaluate some abnormalities of a woman's reproductive system (such as the uterus or ovaries)
  • Collect a sample of stool to test for blood
  • Check for hemorrhoids or other growths in the rectum

The digital rectal exam is typically done during a standard physical exam for men and during a pelvic exam for women.

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Who Should Get a Digital Rectal Exam?

  • Men over a certain age; to screen for prostate cancer, the digital rectal exam is recommended annually in all men beginning at age 50. Men at high risk (African-American men and men with one or more first-degree relatives -- a parent or sibling -- diagnosed at an early age) should begin testing at age 45. Men at even higher risk, due to multiple first-degree relatives affected at an early age, may begin testing at age 40.
  • Anyone with rectal bleeding, abdominal or pelvic pain, or a change in bowel habits
  • Annually, if over age of 50, to check for abnormalities of the rectum and/or blood in the stool

What Happens During a Digital Rectal Exam?

Before a digital rectal exam, you will be asked to undress below the waist and drape a paper or cloth covering over your waist. Men are often examined while standing, bending forward at the waist, or lying on their side with knees bent.

The health care provider will insert a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum and feel for tenderness, or other abnormalities. Often pressure is applied to the abdomen with the other hand to improve the ability to detect any abnormalities. The test takes only a few minutes to complete.

Women are often examined during the pelvic exam with their feet raised and supported by stirrups. The health professional then inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum. Pressure may be applied with the other hand on the lower abdomen or pelvic area to feel for tenderness or abnormalities (such as enlargement, hardness, or growths) of the organs and related tissues.

You may experience slight, momentary discomfort during the test. The procedure does not cause significant pain or any damage to the prostate.

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