Patient Education

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Men's Health

April 2013

Easing Your Concerns About a Prostate Exam

Visiting your doctor may not always be the most pleasant experience, especially if you need to have a digital rectal exam, or DRE. Like the Pap test for women, a DRE makes many men feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Knowing more about this common procedure can ease your concerns and help you prepare for your first - or subsequent - DRE.

Photo of doctor talking with man in his office

Why you may have a DRE

Both women and men may need a DRE at some point in their life, particularly if they have symptoms such as rectal bleeding or urinary problems. Doctors use a DRE to check for abnormalities in a person's lower colon or rectum or a man's prostate - a small, walnut-sized gland located below the bladder in front of the rectum. The prostate partly surrounds the urethra, the tube that removes urine from the bladder. This small gland plays an integral role in a man's reproductive system. It helps produce semen-the fluid that transports sperm out of the body.

As a man ages, the prostate may become larger; it may even grow to the size of a lemon. A larger prostate may push on the urethra, causing symptoms such as painful or frequent urination. Such symptoms are often why your doctor may recommend a DRE in the first place. He or she may suspect a bacterial infection in the prostate, an enlarged prostate-also called benign prostatic hyperplasia - or possibly prostate cancer.

Even if you have no urinary problems, you may still receive a DRE during a physical exam, especially if you are age 50 or older. That's because a DRE, along with a prostate-specific antigen test, is used to detect prostate cancer. Your doctor can help you decide if and when you should start screening for that disease.

What to expect

For a DRE, your doctor will ask you to undress below the waist and give you a gown to wear. You'll then either lean from the waist over the exam table or lay on your side on the table with your knees tucked into your chest. Wearing a lubricated glove, your doctor will gently insert his finger into your rectum. He or she will feel for any abnormalities, such as bumps or hard spots on the prostate.

A DRE usually lasts no longer than 15 seconds. If you have an enlarged prostate, you may feel some discomfort and the urge to urinate. You shouldn't experience any pain. To put you more at ease during a DRE, follow these tips:

  • Tell your doctor if you have any hemorrhoids or broken skin around the anus. A DRE can aggravate these conditions.

  • Try to relax during the procedure. Think of your favorite vacation spot or weekend retreat.

  • Inhale deeply when your doctor starts the DRE.

  • Remember that a DRE is a medical procedure that can provide valuable information for your doctor.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.


How much do you know about keeping your prostate healthy? Take this quiz to learn more. 



Online Resources

American Society of Clinical Oncology - Digital Rectal Exam (DRE) - What to Expect

National Cancer Institute - Understanding Prostate Changes: A Health Guide for Men

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