Back to Living Better

5 things men should know about a prostate exam

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated one in seven men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. Though it is the third leading cause of cancer death among American men, preventative screenings like a prostate exam can help catch the disease before it becomes fatal.

Matthew Sand, M.D., a urologist at Piedmont, answers five questions men commonly ask about prostate exams.

1.What is a prostate exam?

“A prostate exam is a digital or finger exam in the rectum to feel the prostate through the rectal wall,” says Dr. Sand.  “We estimate the size of the prostate and then we feel around for nodules which are concerning for prostate cancer.”

Prostate exams should be performed along with a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test, which measures the amount of PSA made by the prostate gland. The higher the PSA level, the higher the likelihood that there is a problem with the prostate gland.

“Occasionally you'll have prostate cancers that don't make a high PSA,” says Dr. Sand. “But when we perform the rectal exam, we can detect if there is a lump or a nodule in the prostate. So, it’s very important to do the PSA blood test in combination with the rectal exam.”

2. Who should get a prostate exam?

Men over the age of 50 should have an annual prostate exam, says Dr. Sand. If you have a family history of the disease, the exam can be performed as early as age 40.

3. What happens during the prostate exam?

“The exam is fairly straightforward,” says Dr. Sand. “Patients bend over the exam table positioning their elbows on the table. Wearing a lubricated glove, the doctor inserts his index finger into the rectum. We then palpitate the prostate from side-to-side a couple of times, taking a feel for nodules, bumps, lumps or a hard spot. Then we estimate the size of the prostate gland.”

4. Does it hurt?

“The whole procedure probably takes three to five seconds,” says Dr. Sand. “A little short-term discomfort can save you a lot of long-term pain and suffering.”

5. Why is it important to schedule a prostate screening?

Men aren't great health care seekers on their own, says Dr. Sand.

“They usually go to the doctor for lifestyle issues like erectile dysfunction or urinary issues, but often delay screening testing,” he says.

Prostate cancer is asymptomatic, which means men usually don’t show signs or symptoms of the disease until it’s in a more advanced stage.

“A screening is the only way to catch prostate cancer in the early stages,” says Dr. Sand. “If caught early, it’s very treatable and the survival rate is excellent. If you don’t screen and take care of it, the outcomes are much worse.”

To schedule a prostate screening with a urologist near you, check out our find a doc page

Related Stories