Nearly one in every 20 adult Americans will develop colon cancer in his or her lifetime. Research has confirmed that the single best prevention for colon cancer is the early detection and removal of all colon polyps. And the best method for detection and removal is a colonoscopy.
Colonoscopy is a valuable tool for the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases of the large intestine. As a result of the progress made in the field of fiber optics, colonoscopies are now considered a safe, relatively simple and highly effective diagnostic technique. Increased awareness of the value of early diagnosis has made the procedure part of many people’s comprehensive physical examination.
Through the use of colonoscopy, a physician can detect and remove polyps without abdominal surgery, and perform biopsies, which may reveal early signs of cancer. In addition, periodic colonoscopy is critical in monitoring patients who have had polyps, colitis or colon cancer, or who have a family history of colon cancer.
Frequently Asked Questions about Colonoscopy
Q. What is a colonoscopy?
A. The colon, which is shaped like a very large question mark with many twists and turns, begins in the right lower abdomen and ends in the rectum. A colonoscopy is a safe, effective method of visually examining the colon using a very narrow lighted, flexible fiber optic tube called a colonoscope. At the end of the tube is a miniature camera with a wide-angle lens that helps your doctor examine the lining of your digestive tract on a video monitor. More accurate than a barium enema X-ray and much simpler than exploratory abdominal surgery, colonoscopy is safe and generally well-tolerated by patients.
Q. How do I know if I need a colonoscopy?
A. Your physician may recommend a colonoscopy if you have changes in bowel habits, blood in your stool, an unusual abdominal pain, a history of colon polyps or a history of colon cancer in your family, or if you suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (colitis) or Crohn’s disease. Colonoscopies also can verify findings of polyps or tumors located with a barium enema exam, as well as evaluate intestinal inflammation, ulcerations and diverticulitis.
Q. What should I do before the procedure?
A. Always tell your doctor if you are taking any medications – particularly those that may affect blood clotting — or if you have any special medical conditions, including diabetes, pregnancy, lung or heart conditions. Also let your doctor know if you are allergic to any medications. If you have ever been told to take antibiotics before a dental or surgical procedure, you may need to take antibiotics before a colonoscopy. Your physician can answer all your questions.
Q. Is any preparation necessary before the procedure?
A. Yes. Your colon must be completely empty for the colonoscopy to be thorough and safe. There are a variety of preparations your doctor can choose from to flush the colon, including tablets or a liquid solution that you drink. In addition, you will be asked to drink only clear liquids for one or two days before the procedure and you will be given advice on taking regular medications during that time. A list of detailed instructions will be provided by your physician.
Q. What happens during the procedure?
A. On the day of the procedure you will be given a mild sedative to help you relax. During the procedure, you will lie on your left side on an examining table and the physician will insert the colonoscope into the rectum and gently move it through your colon. There are several tiny instruments in the scope that help the physician during the procedure: one to blow air into your colon, which inflates it to help the physician see better; one to remove polyps or take biopsies; and one to stop any bleeding. After the procedure, you may experience a little discomfort, like the feeling of having gas, but that soon subsides. The entire procedure usually takes less than 30 minutes and most people can resume their regular diet later that day.
Q. What happens after the examination?
A. Your physician will explain the findings to you. If a biopsy was performed or a polyp removed, you should get the results in about a week. Your physician may give you other special instructions as well. Even though you should feel fine, you must have someone else drive you home after the procedure because of the sedatives. You should not drive, operate heavy machinery or make important decisions for up to six hours after your procedure.
If you’ve had prolonged effects from the sedative, you may need to make a follow-up appointment. If you have excessive or prolonged rectal bleeding or severe abdominal pain, fever or chills, call your doctor right away.
Q. Are there any risks associated with having a colonoscopy?
A. Serious complications from this procedure are very rare. Of course, as with any medical procedure, they can occur. Complications might include excessive bleeding, especially if a large polyp was removed, or, in rare cases, a tear in the lining of the colon, which might require hospitalization or surgery. Again, these complications are rare.
This content is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by a qualified healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.