A digital rectal exam (DRE) is a test that examines a person's lower rectum, pelvis, and lower belly. This test can help your doctor check for cancer and other health problems, including:
Prostate cancer in men
An abnormal mass in the anus or rectum
Uterine cancer or ovarian cancer in women, along with a vaginal examination
When would I need a DRE?
A doctor may do a DRE as part of a routine medical examination. Or you may need a DRE if you have symptoms such as:
Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
A change in bowel habits
Discharge or bleeding from the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the body
A change in how your urine flows
About the rectum
The rectum is a part of your digestive system. The digestive system processes the food your body does not use. The colon is the biggest part of your large intestine. It empties into the rectum, where waste collects as bowel movements. The rectum empties into the anus, where bowel movements leave the body.
The drawing below shows the different parts of the colon and rectum.
What kind of doctor will I see for a DRE?
A primary care doctor or a gynecologist usually does a DRE. A gynecologist is a doctor who specializes in the health of women's reproductive system. Other types of doctors, including gastroenterologists, surgeons, and oncologists may do DREs. A gastroenterologist is a doctor who specializes in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. An oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer.
How do I get ready for a DRE?
You do not need to do anything special to prepare for a DRE. But there are a few things to keep in mind.
Tell your health care team if you have hemorrhoids or anal fissures. The DRE may make them worse.
If you are concerned about the cost of your DRE, find out from your insurance provider what costs they will cover beforehand. Ask how much of the cost you will have to pay out of pocket.
You will be asked to sign a consent form before your DRE. The form will state that you understand the benefits and risks of the DRE and agree to have the test. Your doctor or nurse will explain the test before you sign the form, and you can ask questions.
What happens during a DRE?
The DRE will take place in a private exam room at your doctor's office. The test only takes a few minutes. You will need to take off any clothes below your waist. You will be given a gown to wear or a cloth to wrap around your body.
For men. The doctor will ask you to stand and bend forward at the waist or they will ask you to lie on your side on an exam table with knees pulled up to your chest. As they start the DRE, the doctor may ask you to relax and take a deep breath. Then they will gently insert a lubricated, gloved finger into your rectum. The doctor will feel the size of your prostate gland. They will also feel for bumps, soft or hard spots, or other abnormal areas. The doctor will also examine the wall of your lower colon and rectum.
For women. The doctor will usually ask you to lie on your back on an exam table. Your feet will be in raised stirrups. The doctor may ask you to relax and take a deep breath as they start the DRE. Then they will gently insert a lubricated, gloved finger into your rectum. The goal is to feel your reproductive organs and the bowel. The doctor may also feel for problems in your internal organs. They do this by pressing on your lower abdomen or pelvic area with their other hand.
A DRE usually does not hurt, but you may be uncomfortable. You may also feel the need to urinate. If a man's prostate is enlarged, there may be some discomfort or mild pain during the exam.
What happens after a DRE?
After your DRE, you can go back to your normal activities right away. You may bleed slightly from the rectum afterward. This is more likely to happen if you have hemorrhoids or anal fissures.
Tell your health care team if you have a large amount of rectal bleeding.
Questions to ask your health care team
Before having a DRE, you may want to ask these questions:
Why do you recommend that I have a DRE?
What happens during the DRE?
Who will do the DRE?
How long will the DRE take?
Will it hurt?
Can a DRE find cancer?
When and how will I get my test results?
Who will explain them to me?
Will I need more tests, such as a colonoscopy or a barium enema, if the DRE suggests cancer?
Ovarian, Fallopian Tube, and Peritoneal Cancer