Reasons to Have a Colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is an important screening examination for gastrointestinal disorders including rectal bleeding, abnormal bowel movements, diverticulosis, stomach pain and inflammatory bowel disease.

It is also a key test for detecting colon cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), colon cancer is one of the five most common cancers in men and women in the U.S and one of the leading causes of cancer death. The ACS reports that almost as many women as men are diagnosed with colon cancer each year.

But, colon cancer is preventable and treatable if detected early by a colonoscopy. Colonoscopies are fast and virtually painless. Don’t wait to have a colonoscopy. Talk to your doctor about your risk for colon cancer and the right time for you to have a screening colonoscopy. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for colorectal cancer at the age of 50, though your doctor may recommend a colonoscopy before the age of 50 if you are determined to be at a higher risk for colon cancer.

The procedure allows a doctor, usually a gastroenterologist, to see and examine the entire colon. Along with imaging, a colonoscopy can also remove lesions or polyps.

Alternatives to Colonoscopies

If your doctor determines that you are at average-risk for developing colon cancer, there are alternatives to colonoscopy that are effective in identifying early signs of colon cancer. People 50 or older who have no relatives with colon cancer and no history of polyps are considered average risk.

One alternative to colonoscopy is a stool test called fecal immunochemical test (FIT). This test is done annually and is effective in detecting hidden blood in the stool, an early sign of cancer. FIT only identifies blood from the lower intestines. Food and medicines do not interfere with FIT, improving accuracy and causing less false positive results than other tests. A positive FIT would lead to additional tests, including colonoscopy, to determine if cancer or some other cause like hemorrhoids or ulcers are causing the positive FIT.

A FIT can be done at home with a kit provided by a doctor’s office. Your sample will be sent to a lab for analysis.

Preparing for a Colonoscopy

Prior to a colonoscopy, you’ll need to empty your colon. This could include a special diet, fasting, a laxative or an enema. You may also need to adjust your medication dosages.

What Happens During a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy takes about 20 minutes to an hour. You’ll wear a gown and be given a sedative intravenously or by pill to help you relax. You’ll feel slightly drowsy but should not feel discomfort. You’ll lie down on your side with knees pulled to your chest. The colonoscope, long enough to go the entire length of your colon, is placed inside your body through the anus. The colonoscope has a light and tiny video camera attached to its tip. You may feel cramping or slight pressure as the instrument is introduced or moved. The instrument also has a tube which inflates the colon allowing the doctor to get a precise view. The doctor can see the inside of your colon from pictures projected on a monitor.

What Happens After a Colonoscopy?

It takes about an hour to recover from the sedative. You’ll need someone to drive you home. You may need the entire next day for the sedative to completely wear off. Feeling bloated, flatulence, headache, nausea and a small amount of blood in your first bowel movement following the exam are not unusual. Walking and drinking plenty of liquids is a good way to alleviate some of the discomfort.

Colonscopy Results

A negative result means the doctor did not find anything abnormal in your colon. If you are at average risk for colon cancer with no other risk factors besides age, your doctor may recommend another colonoscopy in 10 years.

A positive result occurs when abnormal tissue or polyps are found. Polyps taken out during a colonoscopy are sent to a lab to see if they are cancerous, precancerous or benign. If cancerous or precancerous polyps were removed during your colonoscopy, you many need another colonoscopy within three months to a year.

If polyps were found that are noncancerous, the size and amount of polyps could determine the time for your next colonoscopy. Fewer and smaller polyps could require another colonoscopy in five to 10 years while larger and more polyps could require the procedure to be done again in three to five years.

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