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What is a Digital Rectal Exam?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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A digital rectal exam (DRE) is an exam in which a doctor inserts a lubricated and gloved finger into the anus. This exam is usually performed as part of a larger physical exam and workup. Many people associate it with prostate checks, and this is indeed a common reason to perform a digital rectal exam, but there are some other settings in which this exam may be used. There are no risks to this exam, and it is usually over quickly.

In a prostate exam, the doctor performs the DRE to check for signs of growths or abnormalities in the rectum. A doctor may also use a digital rectal exam to palpate other organs, including areas of the female reproductive tract. In addition, the exam is sometimes performed to check for hemorrhoids, to evaluate causes of bleeding from the rectum, or to collect a stool sample. Before procedures such as colonoscopies, a digital rectal exam is performed to make sure that the rectum is clear.

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In this procedure, the patient may be asked to strip entirely and wear an exam gown, or the patient's shirt may be left on while pants or skirts are removed. The exam may be performed on a standing and bent patient or a patient who is lying down, depending on preference and the reason for the exam. The doctor gloves and lubricates before examining the area around the anus and then instructing the patient to take a deep breath and breathe out as the finger is inserted.

Some people experience discomfort during a digital rectal exam, especially if they have hemorrhoids, cancerous growths, or areas of inflammation and irritation in and around the rectum. Doctors generally try to conduct the examination as quickly as possible, and they try to avoid causing discomfort to their patients. Patients should definitely tell the doctor if the exam is causing pain, because this can be an important clinical sign.

The doctor may also palpate the abdomen with the other hand during a digital rectal exam, again depending on why the test is being performed. After the exam, some patients experience light bleeding, usually because they have hemorrhoids which were irritated by the exam. If the results of the exam were abnormal, the doctor may recommend additional testing to learn more about the situation. Normal results may indicate that there is no need for further action, or that other tests are required to find out why a patient is experiencing symptoms such as bloody stool.

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