By feeling through the rectal wall, the doctor can also examine the surface of the prostate gland in men and some reproductive organs in women.
During a rectal exam, your doctor may obtain a small stool sample to test for bleeding from the stomach or bowels. However, testing for hidden blood in the stool as part of a digital rectal exam may not be as reliable as testing stool samples obtained during bowel movements at home.
The exam also is used to look for certain cancers. In both men and women, the exam can detect cancers or polyps that develop in the last few inches of the colon. However, your doctor probably will recommend an additional screening test for colon cancer, such as colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy or fecal occult blood testing.
In men, the rectal exam is often used to screen for prostate cancer in combination with a blood test for prostate-specific antigen (PSA test). There is some controversy about screening for this type of cancer, so discuss this testing with your doctor.
Your doctor will insert a gloved and lubricated finger into your rectum. It often helps to exert pressure as though you are moving your bowels. Your doctor will feel the wall of your rectum, checking for unusual lumps, swellings or tenderness. In men, the doctor will feel the prostate gland through the wall of the rectum and check for suspicious nodules, as well as for abnormalities in the gland's size or shape. In women, the doctor may examine the rectum and vagina at the same time or during a separate exam.
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