Digital Rectal Exam

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a digital rectal exam?

A digital rectal exam is a screening exam for both men and women. It can help doctors find health problems and diseases, including cancerous and noncancerous conditions. It can also be part of a physical exam at the doctor’s office when you have rectal symptoms. Other names for this exam include DRE exam and DRE test.

Why is a DRE performed?

Screening exams are tests that look for signs of disease before you have symptoms. They are often part of routine physicals for people who are at risk for developing the disease. Your doctor may recommend a digital rectal exam to screen for the following diseases and conditions:

Your doctor may also perform a digital rectal exam if you are experiencing symptoms, such as rectal bleeding, bloody stool, or a feeling of fullness in the rectum. Your doctor may collect a stool sample during the exam to test it for blood that you can’t see. This test, called a fecal occult blood test, can help check for gastrointestinal bleeding.

Who performs DREs?

Many different types of doctors frequently perform digital rectal exams, including:

  • Family doctors, internists, and primary care doctors. In general, these providers focus on person’s overall health.

  • Gastroenterologists specialize in gastrointestinal or GI and digestive health.

  • Gynecologists specialize in the health needs of adult and adolescent women.

  • Oncologists prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

  • Urologists provide specialized medical care for diseases, disorders and conditions of the genitourinary tract including the prostate gland.

How is a DRE performed?

Digital rectal exams take place in a private exam room. Your doctor will insert a gloved and lubricated finger into your rectum. This allows your doctor to feel the walls of the rectum or a man’s prostate gland to check for abnormalities. This can be uncomfortable, but the exam is usually brief.

You will need to undress from the waist down and put on a gown or use an exam covering for modesty. For the doctor to perform the exam, men usually stand and bend forward or lie sideways and pull up the knees. Women typically lie on an exam table with their feet in the stirrups, like a pelvic exam. Doctors may apply gentle pressure on a woman’s abdomen to help them feel reproductive organs.

How do I prepare for a digital rectal exam?

There are no special preparations necessary for a digital rectal exam. You can help yourself and ease the exam by trying to stay relaxed. Plan ahead by recalling a pleasant or happy memory or vacation you can think about during the exam. Your doctor will also ask you to take a deep breath during finger insertion.

What can I expect after a digital rectal exam?

Your doctor will discuss the exam findings with you. This may include recommendations for more testing if the exam revealed any potential problems. Ask your doctor to explain why any follow-up tests are necessary and what you can expect.

You can return to normal activities right after a digital rectal exam. You may have some minor rectal bleeding afterwards. This is more likely if you have hemorrhoids or anal fissures. Contact your doctor if you have more bleeding than expected.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 27
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Digital Rectal Exam. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  2. Digital Rectal Exam (DRE). American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  3. PSA and DRE Screening. Prostate Cancer Foundation.