Reasons to omit digital rectal exam in trauma patients: no fingers, no rectum, no useful additional information

J Trauma. 2005 Dec;59(6):1314-9. doi: 10.1097/01.ta.0000198375.83830.62.


Background: Performance of digital rectal examination (DRE) on all trauma patients during the secondary survey has been advocated by the Advanced Trauma Life Support course. However, there is no clear evidence of its efficacy as a diagnostic test for traumatic injury. The purpose of this study is to analyze the value of a policy mandating DRE on all trauma patients as part of the initial evaluation process and to discern whether it can routinely be omitted.

Methods: Prospective study of patients treated at a Level I trauma center. Clinical indicators other than DRE (OCI) denoting gastrointestinal bleeding (GIB), urethral disruption (UD), or spinal cord injury (SCI) were sought and correlated with DRE findings suggesting the same. Impression of the examining physician as to the need and value of DRE was also studied. Patients with a Glasgow Coma Scale Score (GCS) of 3 and pharmacologically paralyzed were excluded from the SCI analyses. UD analysis included only males.

Results: In all, 512 cases were studied (72% male, 28% female) ranging in age from 2 months to 102 years. Thirty index injuries were identified in 29 patients (6%), 17 SCI (3%), 11 GIB (2%), and 2 UD (0.4%). DRE findings agreed positively or negatively with one or more OCI of index injuries in 93% of all cases (92% seeking SCI, 90% seeking GIB, 96% seeking UD). Overall, negative predictive value of DRE was the same as that of OCI, 99% (SCI 98% versus 99%, GIB, 97% versus 99%, UD both 100%). Positive predictive value for DRE was 27% and for OCI 24% (SCI 47% versus 44%, GIB 15% versus 18%, UD 33% versus 6%). Efficiency of DRE was 94% and OCI was 93%. For confirmed index injuries, indicative DRE findings were associated with 41% and OCI 73% (SCI 36% versus 79%, GIB 36% versus 73%, UD 50% versus 100%). OCIs were present in 81% of index injury cases. In all index injury cases where OCIs were absent, positive DRE findings were also absent. DRE was felt to give additional information in 5% of all cases and change management in 4%. In cases where the clinician felt DRE was definitely indicated (29%) it reportedly gave no additional information in 85% and changed management in 11%.

Conclusion: DRE is equivalent to OCI for confirming or excluding the presence of index injuries. When index injuries are demonstrated, OCI is more likely to be associated with their presence. DRE rarely provides additional accurate or useful information that changes management. Omission of DRE in virtually all trauma patients appears permissible, safe, and advantageous. Elimination of routine DRE from the secondary survey will presumably conserve time and resources, minimize unpleasant encounters, and protect patients and staff from the potential for further harm without any significant negative impact on care and outcome.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Digital Rectal Examination*
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Hemorrhage / diagnosis*
  • Gastrointestinal Hemorrhage / etiology
  • Health Status Indicators
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician's Role
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prospective Studies
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / diagnosis*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / etiology
  • Urethral Obstruction / diagnosis*
  • Urethral Obstruction / etiology
  • Wounds and Injuries / complications*