A DRE, or digital rectal exam, is a test done by medical professionals to detect various medical conditions, namely prostate cancer in men and rectal or uterine conditions in women. For men, this test can bring about a significant amount of anxiety. But how bad is a digital rectal exam? Is it something to fear?
A digital rectal exam is performed when a medical professional dons a nitrile lubricated nitrile glove with a hypoallergenic water-based lubricant to insert their index finger into the rectum and feel for masses or other abnormalities of the rectal vault. For a prostate exam, the medical professional will first have the patient bend over at the hips and rest their head, and upper torso on the exam bed or ask the patient to lie on their side in a position known as the Sims’ position. Next, the examiner will use one hand to spread the butt cheeks while using the other hand to insert their gloved and lubricated finger approximately four inches into the rectum to feel the rectal wall’s anterior, or frontal, aspect. The prostate lies just under the rectal tissue and can be felt through the rectal tissue with mild pressure. A normal, healthy prostate should feel smooth, symmetrical, and mildly soft. In prostate cancers, there may be a palpable nodule or mass on the surface of the prostate, which will indicate to the clinician the need for further testing. After feeling the prostate, the clinician will rotate their inserted finger clockwise and counterclockwise to feel the entire rectal vault for any abnormal masses or nodules.
So, now that we know what a DRE is, how bad is it? Many patients report a mild and temporary feeling of discomfort, including the urge to defecate, but the feeling rapidly passes once the exam has concluded. Often, you will be provided a tissue to wipe yourself afterward, and if you are not offered one, you may request one if you desire.
We hope this article has eased your fear of a DRE and if you still feel nervous, talk to your doctor or another qualified medical provider about a DRE to address any questions or apprehension you may have.