The colon, commonly known as the large intestine, is the last portion of your digestive or gastrointestinal tract. It is a hollow tube about five feet long that absorbs water and minerals from digested food.
A colonoscopy is a medical procedure that involves a doctor using a long, flexible tube with a camera and light — known as a colonoscope — to look inside the colon. By adjusting the various controls on the instrument, your gastroenterologist can carefully guide this instrument in any direction. The high-quality picture from the colonoscope is reflected on a TV monitor and gives a clear, detailed view.
A colonoscopy is a procedure used to check for colon cancer and to treat colon polyps. Polyps are abnormal growths that develop on the internal lining of the intestine. They can vary in size and shape and although on onset they are not cancerous, if they are not treated they can become malignant. Another issue that colonoscopies can treat are colorectal cancer. This is cancer of the colon and rectum which occurs when a growth along the lining of either region becomes malignant. It can be cured if detected early.
Colonoscopy can also help evaluate problems such as:
- Blood loss.
- Abdominal or rectal pain.
- Changes in bowel habits, such as chronic diarrhea.
- Abnormalities that may have first been detected by other studies, such as an inflamed colon noted on a CT scan of the abdomen.
- Active bleeding from the large bowel.
Colonoscopies can be used to help avoid major surgery or in some cases, to help doctors better define what type of surgery needs to be done.
Before a colonoscopy, it is important that you take the following steps:
- Follow the instructions that your doctor gives you to thoroughly clean out your colon before the procedure. This includes taking any liquid preparations to stimulate bowel movements, clear fluids, special diets, etc.
- Don’t eat or drink anything for at least six hours beforehand or after midnight if your procedure is scheduled for the following morning.
- Tell your doctor about the medications you are taking, including aspirin-containing drugs and blood thinners.
- Identify any allergies or any reactions you have had to drugs, particularly antibiotics or pain medications
Your doctor will explain the procedure and its benefits and risks, and you will be asked to sign an informed consent form. This form verifies that you agree to have the procedure and understand what’s involved.
What Can You Expect During a Colonoscopy?
During the procedure, your health team will do their best to make sure you are as comfortable as possible. An intravenous line, or IV, will be placed to give you sedative medications. The drug will allow you to remain awake and cooperative while preventing you from remembering the experience. Once you are fully relaxed, your doctor will first do a rectal exam with a gloved and lubricated finger before a lubricated colonsocope is gently inserted.
As the scope is slowly and carefully passed, you may feel as if you need to use the restroom or move your bowels, cramping or fullness. However, there is typically no discomfort.
The duration of the procedure varies from case to case, however the procedure typically takes 15-30 minutes. Afterwards, you will be cared for in a recovery area of the hospital until the medications wear off. Your doctor will then inform you of the result of the colonoscopy and provide you with any additional information you need to know.
Possible Colonoscopy Complications
Although colonoscopy has been proven to be a safe procedure, complications may occur, including a perforation, or puncture of the colon walls, which would require surgical repair. When a polyp needs to removed or a biopsy is performed hemorrhaging or heavy bleeding may occur. To treat this, sometimes a blood transfusion or reinsertion of the colonoscope will occur in order to control the bleeding.
After the colonoscopy, plan to rest for the remainder of the day; this means no driving, and that you should arrange to have a friend or family member take you home. Minor problems, such as bloating, mild cramping, and gas may persist, which should disappear in 24 hours or less. A day or so after you are home, you should follow up with your colonoscopy team or doctor if you have question. If a biopsy is required, pathology results usually are available within 7 days.