Digital rectal examination

Written by Syra Dhillon


Introduce yourself with your name, role and confirm the patient’s name and date of birth. Briefly explain the procedure and the degree of exposure required. The patient should be undressed from the waist down including any undergarments.

Obtain consent and proceed to wash hands. For this examination, it is essential to have a chaperone.

Position the bed flat and then put on a pair of non-sterile gloves and an apron. Instruct the patient to lie on the bed in the left lateral position with their knees bent up to their chest. Offer the patient a blanket to maintain their dignity. Ask if they are in any pain and are comfortable.

Coma Position

Left lateral position.

Many patients will feel uncomfortable with the process of a digital rectal examination, so it is important to have good communication skills to keep them at ease. Be clear and to the point with your explanations; do not hesitate. It is important that you reassure the patient that this is a normal examination.

A good way of explaining the procedure is as follows:
“In this examination, I will be using my gloved hand to insert a lubricated finger into your back passage. This allows me to check for any abnormalities of the local area and the prostate. This may be a little uncomfortable. If at any point you wish to stop for a moment, please do let me know.”


Before you begin your examination, prepare the following equipment in a plastic tray:


Warn the patient that you are about to look around the area.

Separate the buttocks using your non-dominant hand and inspect the anus and natal cleft. Inspect for the following signs:

Ask the patient to cough and check for any internal haemorrhoids or rectal prolapse.

Haemorrhoids are disrupted and dilated anal vascular cushions which are prone to rupture. There are three anal cushions located at 3, 7 and 11 o’clock (with 12 o’clock being closest to the genital area). They are classified according to their location. Internal haemorrhoids are found above the dentate line and have visceral innervation. They are usually painless (unless prolapsed). External haemorrhoids are found below the dentate line and have somatic innervation. They can be quite painful.

Internal haemorrhoids can further be classified as follows:

This is a group of two disorders that cause chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract:

Ulcerative colitis: A relapsing and remitting condition (the patient is relatively well between attacks), of the colonic mucosa and submucosa. It starts at the rectum and spreads proximally and continuously. Patients will experience bloody diarrhoea with mucus and tenesmus.

Crohn’s disease: A chronic disease that has skip lesions (patchy unharmed regions) which can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract. There are non-caseating granulomas which are transmural (through the entire wall of the organ) in nature; as a result, Crohn’s disease can lead to fistulae and fissures. Patients also suffer from ulcers, strictures and abscesses. These patients are likely to have weight loss and will be more systemically unwell at presentation.

Anal tone

Lubricate the index finger of your dominant hand with some lubricating jelly and place your other hand on the patient’s hip. Place one finger on the anal orifice and lightly palpate for induration (a hardened/fibrous section under the skin), which is associated with inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease.

Ask the patient to breathe in deeply and then relax to loosen the sphincter.

Warn the patient that they may feel some cold jelly, and then advance your index finger into the anal canal. Ask the patient to bear down on your finger to assess anal tone. Decreased anal tone may be due to long-term diarrhoea, diabetes, spinal trauma or simply old age.


Anal canal

Sweep 360° around the full rectum. The anterior walls may be more easily examined by rotating your body and wrist. Check for any lumps; these may be haemorrhoids, polyps or a tumour. Feel for palpable faeces and tenderness. If the patient is in severe pain during the examination, consider an anal fissure, abscess or ulcer.

Note the location, using a clock face, and texture of anything you find. e.g. 1cm irregular mass at 9 o’clock.

After advancing your finger, it may be worth pausing for a few seconds to allow the patient to acclimatise and relax.

During palpation look at the patient’s face for signs of distress/pain.


With males, identify the prostate, its central sulcus and assess the size. A normal prostate is smooth and walnut sized. Check for symmetry, the presence of any nodules and any tenderness. Abnormalities in these features can give indications towards pathology:

Benign prostatic hyperplasia: A common condition that is defined as the slow, progressive nodular hyperplasia of the peri-urethral zone. It is a common cause of lower urinary tract symptoms in men and can often be treated with a combination of an -blocker (tamsulosin) and a 5-reductase inhibitor (finasteride).

Prostatitis: Swelling and inflammation of the prostate gland characterised by pain around the perineum and penis, more commonly in younger men. It can be divided into acute and chronic:

Prostate cancer: This is the second most common cause of cancer death in males and it is also often asymptomatic until the late stages. It presents with urinary tract symptoms, such as dysuria and hesitancy, until metastatic spread, where the patient will also experience bone pain, cord compression and systemic symptoms (fever, lethargy, weight loss).


Inspection of the gloved finger

Withdraw and inspect the gloved finger for blood or mucus, suggesting ulcerative colitis. Thank the patient, remove your gloves and place them in a clinical waste bin. Wash your hands.

Wipe away the jelly from the anus and offer the patient some extra tissues for their own comfort. Give the patient privacy to get dressed.


Offer to take a focussed history, an abdominal exam and the appropriate tests depending on the pathology.

Gastrointestinal presenting complaint:

Urinary presenting complaint:

PSA is produced by produced by the epithelial cells in the prostate and is used in screening, despite being a notoriously poor marker. The test has a high specificity, yet low sensitivity meaning that up to 1 in 7 men with prostate cancer may receive a false negative result.

Other conditions which increase PSA include benign prostatic hyperplasia and prostatitis. It can also be increased after vigorous exercise or ejaculation.

Concise history

Below are some the key elements to be addressed when taking a focussed DRE history depending on what the presenting complaint is.

Gastrointestinal presenting complaint:

Urinary presenting complaint:

Interactive markscheme

When assessing each other, click on each list item as you go along. Doing so will turn the list item green. Make careful note of any steps missed at the end.
We recommend completing any examination or procedure in under 10 minutes, but you can adjust the timer to suit your needs.

  1. Introduction: “Hello, I’m SimpleOSCE and I am a medical student. Today I have been asked by the doctor to carry out an examination of your back passage and prostate, would that be okay? Can I confirm your name and DOB? Thank you.”
  2. "For the purpose of this examination the examiner will act as a chaperone."
  3. Ensure adequate exposure and position.
  4. Wash hands and put gloves/apron on.
  5. Ask about pain and discomfort.
  6. Separate the buttocks and inspect the area (external haemorrhoids, skin tags, excoriation marks, fissures, fistulae).
  7. Ask the patient to cough.
  8. Lubricate your finger with gel.
  9. Palpate the anus for induration.
  10. Assess anal tone.
  11. Enter your finger into the anal canal and sweep 360o.
  12. Keep eyes on the patient’s face at all times to check for signs of distress/pain.
  13. Palpate the prostate and central sulcus (male examination only).
  14. Warn the patient before withdrawing your finger.
  15. Inspect the glove for blood or mucus before placing in the clinical waste bin.
  16. Wash hands.
  17. Thank the patient and give them privacy to dress.
  18. “To conclude I would take to take full history, do some blood tests including PSA and a biopsy (if indicated).”
  19. Present findings.
Overall: 0/19