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What is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is a procedure that examines the lining of your colon and rectum using a thin, flexible instrument called a colonoscope. The colonoscope has a camera that transmits pictures of the inside of your colon to a video screen.

The colon and the rectum make up the large intestine, sometimes called the large bowel. The large intestine is a long, hollow organ in your abdomen that plays an important role in digestion by removing water from digested material and forming feces.  

A colonoscopy is an important test that can detect colorectal cancer in its earliest, most curable stage. It also helps diagnose unexplained intestinal symptoms, such as changes in your bowel movements, abdominal pain, or rectal bleeding. 

Colonoscopy is only one method used to test for colon cancer. Discuss all the screening and testing options with your doctor to understand which options are right for you.

Types of colonoscopy

The types of colonoscopy procedures include:

  • Colonoscopy is an endoscopy procedure that involves inserting a colonoscope into the large intestine through the anus. The colonoscope contains a camera that transmits pictures of the inside of your colon to a video screen.
  • Virtual colonoscopy is a type of computerized tomography (CT) scan that uses X-rays to produce images of the inside of the large intestine. Despite its name, virtual colonoscopy is not an actual endoscopy procedure because it does not involve inserting a colonoscope into the large intestine. 

Other procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may perform other procedures in addition to colonoscopy to diagnose or treat certain conditions. These include:

  • Control of bleeding in the large intestine. This involves injecting medications, applying clips, or sealing bleeding vessels with heat
  • Removal of colon polyps, which are abnormal growths in the large intestine that can become cancerous
  • Tissue biopsy, which involves removing polyps or samples of abnormal looking intestinal tissues. Tissues are examined and tested in a lab for cancer and other diseases.
Medical Reviewers: Jeffrey Crespin, MD Last Review Date: Jul 11, 2013

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View Sources

Medical References

Colonoscopy. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/colonoscopy/. Accessed April 25, 2013.
Evaluating postoperative fever: A focused approach. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. http://ccjm.org/content/73/Suppl_1/S62.full.pdf. Accessed April 25, 2013.
Frequently Asked Questions About Colonoscopy and Sigmoidoscopy. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/healthy/findcancerearly/examandtestdescriptions/faq-colonoscopy-and-sigmoidoscopy. Accessed April 25, 2013.
Learn About Cancer. American Cancer Society. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:yquSZ7Ab04cJ:www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/detailedguide/colorectal-cancer-key-statistics+American+Cancer+Society,+colorectal+cancer+is+one+of+the+leading+causes+of+cancer-related+deaths+in+the+United+States&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us. Accessed April 25, 2013.
Understanding Colonoscopy. American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. http://www.asge.org/PatientInfoIndex.aspx?id=382. Accessed April 25, 2013.

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