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Digital rectal examination

During a digital rectal examination (DRE) a doctor or nurse inserts a gloved finger into the rectum to feel for any problems or abnormalities.

In this case, digital refers to the finger, rather than any electronic equipment.

Although there may be some embarrassment associated with undergoing this test, it does not take long, and doesn’t usually cause any pain.

Digital rectal examination is used to:

A digital rectal examination may be arranged to investigate symptoms, such as discomfort, or as part of a routine examination in some cases.

Who should have a digital rectal examination?

  • Your doctor may recommend a digital rectal examination if you are experiencing rectal bleeding, abdominal or pelvic pain, blood in your stools, constipation, incontinence, or other changes in your bowel habits.
  • Men considered at increased risk of prostate cancer, or with symptoms of disturbances of urination that might suggest changes in their prostate gland, will usually be offered a digital rectal examination.
  • Women experiencing problems with their reproductive organs may be offered a digital rectal examination as part of their investigations.

What happens during a digital rectal examination?

In a GP’s surgery, men may only need to pull down or remove their trousers and underpants, with a blanket or paper drape used to help preserve modesty. The same applies to women if they are only having a rectal examination, who may be asked only to lift their dress or pull down or remove trousers and underclothes. A chaperone may be present, if appropriate, and if none is offered, you may ask for one to attend. In hospital, the patient may be asked to undress below the waist and put on a gown. Most people are examined while lying on their left side with their knees drawn up.

After carrying out a careful visual check of the area, the doctor or specialist nurse will insert a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum. They will feel for any tenderness or abnormalities. For men, the doctor or nurse may press firmly over the surface of the prostate gland. The test normally takes less than a minute to complete.

There may be some temporary discomfort while the test is carried out.

The procedure does not cause significant pain or any damage to the prostate.

What happens after the digital rectal examination?

You may continue your normal activities after a digital rectal examination.

After you’re dressed, your doctor or nurse will discuss the examination results with you. 

This is what they may find:

  • No abnormalities
  • Abnormal growths or organ enlargement ( prostate, uterus, ovaries, rectum or bladder)
  • Haemorrhoids, abscesses or anal fissures (breaks in the skin around the anus
  • Polyps, or tissue growths (often non- cancerous), in the rectum.

Although the digital rectal examination is often part of the procedure to check for bowel cancer, this test alone is not used to diagnose the disease. If the rectal examination suggests the possibility of bowel cancer, further tests may be arranged, such as flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy or a barium enema.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on August 09, 2016

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