What Is a Digital Rectal Exam?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 30, 2022
2 min read

Your doctor may recommend a digital rectal exam (DRE) for these reasons:

  • Help evaluate 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

You may need a digital rectal exam if you have rectal bleeding, abdominal or pelvic pain or a change in bowel habits.

But studies have shown there is little evidence that DREs are effective in screening for cancers such as colon, rectal or prostate. For that reason it is not part of the routine physical examination.

However, a DRE might be included as a part of prostate cancer screening. This will depend on your age, risk factors and symptoms.

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. They’ll probably press the abdomen with their other hand to help them feel any abnormalities.

You may feel slight, momentary discomfort during the test. But it shouldn’t hurt.

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