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What should I expect during a digital rectal exam (DRE)?

Marc B. Garnick, MD
Hematology & Oncology
During a digital rectal exam (DRE), the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum. Because the prostate sits in front of the rectum, the doctor can feel part of it through the rectal wall. A normal prostate is small -- about an inch and a half from side to side -- and feels smooth and rubbery. Swelling, lumps, firm knots, or abnormally textured areas may indicate prostate cancer or another condition.

There are two schools of thought about the best position for the DRE. Some physicians prefer that the patient stand and bend at the waist, with his arms extended on the examination table. Others opt to have the patient lie on one side with one or both knees drawn up toward the chest. There are no data showing one position superior to the other.

Some men find the DRE uncomfortable and embarrassing, so they postpone or avoid going to a physician. But the exam can provide your doctor with important information about your health, and it shouldn't be painful. (If it is, say so!) The exam usually doesn't last very long, but it should be done slowly enough that the doctor can assess the size of the prostate, feel its lobes, and detect bumps, hardness, or changes in consistency from one side to the other. Although every rectal exam should be thorough, some patients report that specialists seem to be more meticulous than general practitioners in performing a DRE.

The prostate gland is located next to the rectum and can thus be palpated, or felt, through the wall of the rectum. This is what a digital rectal examination (DRE) involves. The doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum and pushes on the gland, feeling for any bumps or other irregularities. A doctor can get a general idea of the size and condition of the gland by palpating it. A normal prostate feels smooth and elastic. DREs have become a regular part of annual check-ups for men over 40. While the exam is a little uncomfortable, it is not painful, and takes only a few seconds.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.