A prostate exam typically includes a digital rectal exam (DRE). This is a fancy name for a very simple procedure that allows the doctor to physically feel the prostate gland to determine if it is enlarged, abnormally hard, or if there are any lumps or other irregularities.
In reality, the only thing that is “digital” in this fast test is the doctor’s finger! A DRE is also part of the full prostate cancer screening process, which also usually includes a PSA test.
A DRE is important because some men with prostate cancer may not have a PSA level that is any cause for alarm. And some men with prostate cancer may have a totally normal DRE because small or early prostate cancers are very difficult for a doctor to feel (the medical term for this is not palpable).
While neither of these simple tests are 100% accurate, they are often a first step to help doctors determine if a man has prostate cancer.
Using a DRE alone, however, has been shown to be less accurate than PSA testing for detecting prostate cancer.
Prostate exam: What to expect
The doctor will put on gloves and add some kind of a lubricant. The man may be asked to bend over the examination table or lie on his side with his knees drawn up into his chest.
The doctor will then insert a gloved finger into the man’s rectum to feel the prostate gland. While this rectal examination is not very pleasant for a man, it is usually very brief.
A DRE is typically performed along with a PSA test as part of the screening process for prostate cancer.
When a man has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, a DRE may also be performed during consultations with doctors, or during follow-up visits after treatment for prostate cancer.
In fact, even if a man has had his prostate gland surgically removed, his doctor should still perform a prostate exam during follow up visits. This is to ensure that there are no signs of a tumor growing in the area where the prostate gland used to be.
The American Cancer Society. Prostate Cancer. http://www.cancer.org. Accessed March 17, 2015.
American Urological Association. The Management of Localized Prostate Cancer. http://www.auanet.org. Accessed September 1, 2008.