A digital rectal exam is an exam of the lower rectum. The health care provider uses a gloved, lubricated finger to check for any abnormal findings.
How the Test is Performed
The provider will first look at the outside of the anus for hemorrhoids or fissures. Then the provider will put on a glove and insert a lubricated finger into the rectum. In women, this exam may be done at the same time as a pelvic exam.
How to Prepare for the Test
For the test, the provider will ask you to:
- Try to relax
- Take a deep breath during the insertion of the finger into your rectum
How the Test will Feel
You may feel mild discomfort during this test.
Why the Test is Performed
This test can be done for several reasons. It may be done:
- As part of a routine yearly physical exam in both men and women
- When your provider suspects you are bleeding somewhere in your digestive tract
- When men are having symptoms that suggest the prostate is enlarged or you may have a prostate infection
In men, the test can be used to check the size of the prostate and to look for abnormal bumps or other changes of the prostate gland.
A digital rectal exam may be done to collect stool for testing for fecal occult (hidden) blood as part of screening for cancer of the rectum or colon.
A normal finding means the provider did not detect any problem during the exam. However, this test does not rule out all problems.
What Abnormal Results Mean
An abnormal result may be due to:
- A prostate problem, such as an enlarged prostate gland, prostate infection, or prostate cancer
- Bleeding anywhere in the digestive tract
- Cancer of the rectum or colon
- Small split or tear in the thin moist tissue lining of the anus (called anal fissure)
- An abscess, when pus collects in the area of the anus and rectum
- Hemorrhoids, swollen veins in the anus or lower part of the rectum
Coates WC. Anorectal procedures. In: Roberts JR, Custalow CB, Thomsen TW, eds. Roberts and Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine and Acute Care. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 45.
Downs JM, Kulow B. Anal diseases. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 129.
Loeb S, Eastham JA. Diagnosis and staging of prostate cancer. In: Partin AW, Dmochowski RR, Kavoussi LR, Peters CA, eds. Campbell-Walsh-Wein Urology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 152.
Review Date 11/4/2021
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.