While many people feel anxious at the thought of a colonoscopy, learning about the procedure can help allay any fears. Often recommended for patients experiencing abdominal pain or intestinal problems, a colonoscopy is also used to screen for colon cancer and detect abnormalities in the large intestine and rectum.
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) is the third most diagnosed cancer in the United States. Although rates of death have been dropping for several decades, they estimate that colorectal cancer will cause over 50,000 deaths in 2019, while close to 150,000 new cases will be diagnosed.
It’s clear that screening is vital. If you need to have the procedure done or you just want to find out what it entails, this article will help.
What Is a Colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy is a test used to screen for cancer and investigate intestinal problems. A long, flexible tube with a small camera is inserted into the rectum, allowing a doctor to see inside the large intestine.
Although it’s sometimes performed under general anesthetic, many doctors prefer to keep patients awake and responsive during the exam. Patients can assist with the colonoscopy by turning from side to side.
While the idea of a colonoscopy might make some people uncomfortable, the procedure plays an important role in identifying health issues. Biopsies can be taken to confirm or rule out disease, and abnormal growths and polyps can get removed to reduce the risk of cancer.
As this risk increases with age, it’s generally recommended to screen for colorectal cancer from the age of 50 and every 10 years thereafter.
How Long Does a Colonoscopy Take?
A colonoscopy will typically take around 30 minutes to perform. If the procedure includes the removal of many large polyps, it takes up to an hour.
Sedation is given to the patient before the scope is inserted. Small puffs of air help expand the colon so the scope can move. As the scope is withdrawn, the doctor carefully examines the lining of the large intestine for any abnormalities.
If these are detected, small tissue samples can be taken with the scope for analysis. Colonoscopies can help identify inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease.
In some cases, doctors identify polyps that need to be removed. These small bumps are often the first sign of cancer, so removing them can substantially reduce the risk of cancerous growths.
Is Colonoscopy Dangerous?
Colonoscopy is a common procedure that carries minimal risk. However, rare complications may include:
- Bleeding due biopsies or removed polyps
- Abdominal pain
- A bad reaction to the sedative used for the procedure
- Tearing in the colon wall or rectum
Before scheduling a colonoscopy, speak to your doctor about the possible risks and any alternative options.
How to Prepare for a Colonoscopy?
If your doctor has recommended a colonoscopy, there are a few things you will need to do to prepare for the procedure. In order for the doctor to be able to view the colon, patients will need to prep their bowel with a clear liquid diet.
While it’s necessary to fast for 24 hours before the procedure, patients are able to drink clear liquids such as tea, juices, or broth. But it’s important to avoid dark liquids or anything red or purple that could discolor the colon.
A laxative is often used to completely clear the bowel the night before or on the day of a colonoscopy. In some cases, doctors may also recommend using an enema to flush the lower colon. This may be an unpleasant experience but it will give the doctors the best chance of identifying any problems.
What Happens During the Procedure?
To ease discomfort, mild sedation is often used to perform a colonoscopy. While lying on your side, the doctor will insert the scope into the rectum to inspect the colon.
The scope is about half an inch thick and typically four to six feet long. It bends to allow the doctor to traverse the entire length of the large intestine. As the scope is moved, you may feel some cramping and discomfort, but as most colonoscopies are done under sedation, the pain is normally minimal.
Should the doctor identify any abnormal tissue, instruments can be sent up the scope to take a tissue sample from inside the colon.
What Should You Do During Recovery?
It may take an hour or two for the sedative to wear off, so it’s important to have someone else drive you home after the procedure. Your doctor will provide you with self-care information after a colonoscopy, and this advice should be followed carefully.
While you may be required to eat a special diet after a polyp has been removed, most patients just need to eat foods that are easy to digest. To avoid inflammation and complications following a colonoscopy, eat a low-fiber diet and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
What to Expect from Test Results?
Your doctor will be able to provide you with some information immediately after the procedure. If everything was clear and no biopsies were taken, there’s no need to get more testing done.
But any removed samples or polyps will need to be analyzed. Results of these tests are normally available within a week or two.
Even if no biopsies were taken, your doctor is likely to recommend another colonoscopy in the future. If you’re over 50 and show no signs or symptoms of colon cancer, another test will need to be done in 10 years. If you have a history of abnormalities from previous exams, it’s best to do a follow-up test in 5 years, to be safe.
If polyps or abnormal tissue is detected, the colonoscopy is considered positive. Tests will need to be run to determine if the tissue is cancerous or not.
If one or two polyps are found, a follow-up colonoscopy is normally recommended in five to ten years. More frequent testing will be required if you have:
- More than two polyps
- Any polyps larger than 1cm
- Polyps indicating a higher risk of cancer
The Takeaway: Should You Get A Colonoscopy?
Although rarely an elective procedure, a colonoscopy is a vital tool in the early detection of colorectal cancer. Thanks to better screening and the removal of polyps, rates of colon cancer across the United States have been falling in recent decades. If you are over 50 or have a family history of colon cancer, your doctor will be able to advise when you should get a colonoscopy.
How long does a colonoscopy take and how badly will it interrupt your routine? The procedure normally takes less than one hour, but you will need to set aside a full day to allow for recovery. As the effects of the sedative can take some time to wear off, make sure you have a ride home after the procedure.