Rectal examination

Overview

A rectal examination is a type of physical examination during which a doctor or nurse inserts a finger into your rectum (back passage) to feel for abnormalities.

It's sometimes known as a digital rectal examination (DRE).

Some people find having a rectal examination embarrassing, but it only takes a few minutes and isn't usually painful. 

What it's used for

One of the most common reasons for having a rectal examination is if a man has a suspected problem with his prostate gland, which could be a sign of prostate disease or prostate cancer

A rectal examination may also be needed if a person develops changes in their normal bowel habits, which could indicate a problem with their digestive system. These changes could include:

The prostate gland   

The prostate gland is a small gland found only in men. It's located in the pelvis, between the penis and bladder, and surrounds the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the penis).

The prostate gland can be examined by placing a finger into the rectum. The doctor carrying out the examination will be able to feel any changes in the prostate, such as swelling and hardening.

The prostate gland often becomes larger in older men. This can place pressure on the bladder and urethra, causing symptoms such as:

  • difficulty beginning to urinate
  • a flow of urine that's weak or stops and starts
  • having to push or strain to pass urine
  • a frequent need to urinate
  • waking up frequently during the night to urinate

Prostate enlargement can be troublesome to live with, but it doesn't pose a threat to health. However, its symptoms are similar to the symptoms of prostate cancer, and a rectal examination is one way of finding out whether the symptoms are caused by prostate enlargement or prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer can cause the surface of the prostate gland to become hard and bumpy, while prostate enlargement doesn't usually affect the surface.

A rectal examination isn't a guaranteed way of diagnosing prostate cancer, so it's usually used in combination with other tests, such as a blood test and a biopsy (where a small sample of the prostate gland is removed for further testing).

Page last reviewed: 06/01/2015
Next review due: 01/01/2018