A rectal exam is when a doctor inserts a well-lubricated gloved finger into a person’s anus to feel for any abnormalities in a person’s rectum. During a female rectal exam, doctors can also feel the space between the person’s uterus and rectum.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Doctors may use rectal exams as part of routine gynecological checkups, but the exams can also help them find the cause of pelvic pain. These exams are also called digital rectal exams. Doctors also use rectal exams to detect:

This article explains a female rectal exam and what to expect from the procedure. It also looks into the reasons why doctors recommend them and explores some of the possible outcomes.

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A person may need a rectal exam to investigate the following symptoms:

  • anal pain or bleeding
  • bowel or urinary incontinence
  • constipation
  • pelvic pain

Doctors may recommend a rectal exam to help them diagnose:

Doctors typically carry out many rectal exams in their offices.

They will ask the person to undress from the waist down. A person can expect the following steps:

  1. The doctor will ask the person to lie on the examining table, on their left side, with their knees bent toward the chest. This makes it easy for the doctor to examine the rectum.
  2. The doctor will put on some gloves and examine the outside of the anus, checking for any hemorrhoids, tears, or other abnormalities.
  3. After lubricating their gloved finger, the doctor will insert that finger into the person’s rectum. This may feel uncomfortable but should not hurt. The doctor may suggest breathing inward as they insert their finger.
  4. Sometimes, the doctor will ask a person to tighten and release their anal muscles around the doctor’s finger to help them check muscle tone.
  5. The doctor will rotate their finger to check for abnormalities in the walls of the rectum, cervix, and uterus. Some people have a retroverted uterus, which means it tilts backward on itself, possibly making sexual intimacy painful.
  6. At the end of the test, the doctor will remove the finger and check the glove for any signs of blood.

Doctors may also perform a rectal exam on females as part of a rectovaginal exam. During this procedure, the person lies on the examination table with their legs in stirrups.

The doctor pushes one gloved and well-lubricated finger into the person’s vagina and another finger of the same hand into the person’s anus. They may also press down on the person’s belly with their other hand.

Before the procedure, the doctor will explain:

  • why a person might need a rectal exam
  • what to expect during the examination
  • that a person may feel some discomfort and the urge to pass stool

Rectal exams may also aggravate external hemorrhoids or tears around the anus.

It is a good idea to have a chaperone present during this examination.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service suggests that a person may also wish to let the doctor know whether they:

  • would like another person present in the room, such as a friend or family member
  • might prefer a male or female to perform the procedure
  • have severe pain around the anus

Many people feel nervous about the test. Some may find it uncomfortable, but it should not feel painful.

If the doctor finds nothing unusual during the exam, the person may not need further testing.

However, if the doctor finds blood, they may need to investigate where it comes from in the person’s digestive tract. If the doctor finds lumps, they may recommend a biopsy or colonoscopy to investigate further.

The American Cancer Society adds that doctors may recommend additional imaging tests if they are concerned that the person has colorectal cancer.

A female rectal exam is a simple procedure during which a doctor inserts a gloved and lubricated finger into the person’s rectum to feel for any abnormalities in the rectum and the person’s reproductive organs.

Doctors usually carry out this test in their offices.

Doctors may include it as part of a gynecological checkup, or they can perform the exam separately, depending on the symptoms the person experiences.