6 Things to Know About Having a Colonoscopy

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Catherine Spader on November 3, 2020
  • Doctor-examining-an-abdominal-x-ray
    1. A colonoscopy can diagnose and prevent colorectal cancer.
    Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in adults in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Colonoscopy can detect early-stage colorectal cancer, when it is easiest to treat. Doctors can also use it to remove colon polyps. Colon polyps are growths that can develop into cancer. Colonoscopy is also accurate, minimally invasive, and covered by most insurance plans. Doctors use colonoscopies to diagnose other types of intestinal symptoms and conditions, such as painful bowel movements, rectal bleeding, and ulcers.
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    2. You may be a candidate for an X-ray-based colonoscopy.
    The gold standard for colorectal screening is a conventional colonoscopy. It involves inserting a colonoscope through the rectum into the colon. This device sends pictures of the colon to a video monitor. The other testing option is a virtual colonoscopy. This is a CT (computed tomography) scan of your colon. It uses X-rays and a computer system to produce very detailed images. Some imaging centers use MRI instead of CT. The doctor still needs to insert air into your colon to help see the area, but it is much less invasive than a regular colonoscopy. Talk with your doctor about which test is best for you.
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    3. It doesn’t have to be frightening or embarrassing.
    It’s common to feel a sense of dread or embarrassment about having a conventional colonoscopy, but many people find the test to be much easier than they expected. The test is done in a private room, and your care team will make you feel comfortable and ensure your privacy. If your feelings are getting in the way of having this important screening test, talk with your doctor. A less invasive virtual colonoscopy may be an option for you.
  • senior-man-hand-holding-a-glass-of-water-and-the-pills-laying-on-the-table
    4. A colonoscopy is not painful.
    Your doctor will give you pain and sedative medicine to keep you relaxed and pain-free. You will likely sleep through the procedure. If you are awake, it’s not unusual to feel mild pressure and brief cramping during the test. Tell your doctor if you are anxious or uncomfortable, so your care team can adjust your medications.
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    5. A colonoscopy takes less than an hour.
    Most people return to normal activities the day after the test. You will need to allow some extra time at the facility to check in before and to recover after the procedure. You will also need to be free the day before to cleanse your colon. Cleansing may include a combination of enemas, laxatives, and not eating solid foods. The colonoscopy facility will send you detailed instructions about what to do.
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    6. Your doctor may take tissue samples or remove polyps for testing.
    Doctors can usually remove small polyps during a conventional colonoscopy. Your doctor can also take a tissue sample (biopsy) of large polyps or other abnormal looking areas. The biopsy is sent to a lab and tested for cancer. If your doctor sees a polyp or abnormal looking tissue on a virtual colonoscopy, you will need to have a conventional colonoscopy to remove and test the polyp for cancer. Your doctor will discuss the colonoscopy with you before you leave the testing facility. Results from polyp testing or a biopsy take longer. If you had polyps removed or a biopsy, ask your doctor when to expect the lab test results.
6 Things to Know About Having a Colonoscopy

About The Author

  1. Colon Cancer: Catching It Early. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/research/infographicgallery/colon-cancer-early-detection-2014?gclid=CPTavKLFqb...
  2. Colonoscopy. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/colonoscopy/
  3. Colorectal Cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/index
  4. Frequently Asked Questions About Colonoscopy and Sigmoidoscopy. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/healthy/findcancerearly/examandtestdescriptions/faq-colonoscopy-and-sigmoidosc...
  5. Learn About Cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/detailedguide/colorectal-cancer-key-statistics
  6. Understanding Colonoscopy. American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. http://www.asge.org/PatientInfoIndex.aspx?id=382
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 3
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.