Your doctor may recommend a digital rectal exam for these reasons:
- Help find 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
- Check on some problems in 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
Who Should Get a Digital Rectal Exam?
Doctors recommend that everyone age 50 and older get this test to check for abnormalities of the rectum and blood in the stool.
If you’re not 50 yet, you’ll need a digital rectal exam if you have rectal bleeding, abdominal or pelvic pain, or a change in bowel habits.
The exam also helps doctors check men for prostate cancer, along with a blood test to check on levels of PSA (prostate-specific antigen), which are often higher in men who have prostate cancer. Those at high risk may need to get this test before age 50. Talk with your doctor about when you should start testing.
What Happens During a Digital Rectal Exam?
You’ll get this test in your doctor’s office. It only takes a few minutes.
First, you’ll 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. Women usually get this test during a pelvic exam, with their feet raised and supported by stirrups.
The doctor will insert a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum and feel for tenderness or other abnormalities. He’ll probably press the abdomen with his other hand to help him feel any abnormalities.
You may feel slight, momentary discomfort during the test. But it shouldn’t hurt.
What Happens After the Digital Rectal Exam?
Your doctor will discuss the test results with you. This is what they may find:
- Nothing, a normal exam
- Abnormal growths or enlargement of an organ (such as the prostate, cervix, uterus, ovaries, rectum, or bladder)
- Hemorrhoids, abscesses, or anal fissures (breaks in the skin around the anus)
- Polyps, or tissue growths in the rectum
- Blood in the stool
Keep in mind that although the digital rectal exam is often part of the routine exam to screen for colorectal cancer, it’s not enough to detect the disease. If your doctor finds anything unusual, you may need further tests, such as flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, or a barium enema.