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Covering The Basics (And More) About Colonoscopy

Being told that you should get a colonoscopy can bring up a lot of emotions — fear, anxiety, uncertainty. You’re not alone in wondering what’s going to happen, what the recovery is like, or why you even need one in the first place. However, it’s an important tool that helps your provider diagnose serious health concerns, including cancer.

A colonoscopy is an exam that allows your provider to look inside your rectum and colon using a tool called a colonoscope — a long, flexible tube with a tiny camera attached to the end. This exam can show:

  • Inflamed or irritated tissue
  • Abnormal growths (polyps)
  • Ulcers (sores on the intestinal lining)
  • Colorectal cancer (cancer in the colon or rectum)

Why Might You Need a Colonoscopy?

There are many reasons someone might need a colonoscopy. It can be a very useful tool for you and your provider to keep your colon as healthy as possible.

Your provider might recommend a colonoscopy to find the cause of bleeding from your anus, changes in bowel movements (such as diarrhea), belly pain, or unexplained weight loss. Or, they might want to use a colonoscopy to treat bleeding or blockages in your colon or rectum.

But most often, colonoscopies are used as a screening tool for colorectal cancer — cancer of the colon or rectum.

Colorectal Cancer Screening

Colorectal cancer is actually fairly common — you have a 6% chance of developing colorectal cancer in your lifetime. Your risk is doubled if you:

  • Have a parent, sibling, or child that has had cancer or polyps after age 50 — but your risk is higher if they were younger than 50 at the time of diagnosis or more than one family member has been diagnosed
  • Have inflammatory conditions in your colon, such as Crohn’s disease or colitis and ulcerative colitis
  • Drink a lot of alcohol
  • Are obese
  • Smoke

Colonoscopies can find signs of current or potential colorectal cancer. They allow physicians to find cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s easiest to treat and has a better chance of being cured.

They can also find and remove polyps, which are abnormal tissue growths. Polyps are usually harmless, but since they have the potential to turn into cancer, getting them removed right away lowers your risk of developing cancer in the future.

Fortunately, getting colonoscopies as recommended can greatly lower your risk of developing or dying from colorectal cancer.

Your provider will talk to you about when to start screening. In general, screening begins at age 50 for people who don’t have other health problems or risk factors that make their risk of developing colorectal cancer higher, such as a family history of polyps or colorectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, Lynch syndrome, or smoking.

Talk to your provider about when to stop getting colonoscopies. Many people stop after age 75 — as long as they have been getting regular screenings that have consistently come back negative for cancer and are not at high risk for developing colorectal cancer.

Before the Exam: Prepping for a Colonoscopy

Many people are particularly anxious about the prep for a colonoscopy. The truth is that preparation is certainly unpleasant — but it’s only temporary and it’s not horrible.

In order to prepare for a colonoscopy, you will need to completely clear out your bowel to allow your provider to see your entire colon through the scope.

Your provider will give you a bowel prep solution that contains some combination of laxatives in the form of a pill, powder, or liquid. You will need to take the bowel prep the night before and the morning of the procedure. You may also need to follow a clear, liquid diet for up to 3 days before the procedure.

Because the purpose of the bowel prep is to make sure little to no stool remains in your intestine, it will cause some diarrhea. This might cause some discomfort, but it’s essential for your provider to have a clear view of everything in your colon.

No matter what the results of your colonoscopy reveal, the benefits of monitoring your colon health are worth the temporary discomfort.

Colonoscopy Step-By-Step

Colonoscopies are usually not painful. They are typically performed while you’re sedated, so you won’t feel anything or even remember the procedure, which generally takes less than an hour to complete.

    The colonoscopy procedure in 5 steps

  1. You’ll be given a sedative or pain medicine, so you won’t be aware of feeling any pain during the procedure.
  2. Your provider — usually a gastroenterologist (a physician who treats digestive tract and liver diseases) — will insert a colonoscope (a long, flexible instrument with a camera on its end) through your anus into your rectum and colon.
  3. The scope will inflate your large intestine with air for a better view, and the camera will send a video image to a monitor so your provider can examine your intestine.
  4. Your provider may remove any polyps or abnormal tissue to send to a lab for testing. You won’t feel this removal.
  5. Your provider will remove the colonoscope.

Though you’ll need to wait an hour or two until the sedative wears off, you’ll be able to go home the same day. However, you’ll need to arrange for someone to drive you home because of the sedation.

Plan to take it easy the day of the procedure, but you’ll be able to resume most normal activities — such as going to work and light exercise — the next day.

You may feel some cramping or bloating in the first hour after your procedure. If your provider removed any polyps or tissue, you may experience some light bleeding from your anus — this is completely normal.

You’ll be able to return to your normal diet the next day. Because you haven’t eaten solid food in a while, it can be easier on your stomach if you start with small meals and then slowly ease into solid food.

Are There Any Risks to a Colonoscopy?

Serious risks are very rare — there are an estimated 4 to 8 serious complications for every 10,000 colonoscopies performed.

However, as with any medical procedure, there are some risks, including:

  • Bleeding
  • Perforation — or creating a hole — in the colon
  • Reactions to the sedative, such as breathing or heart problems
  • Severe pain in your abdomen

The most common risks are bleeding and perforation, especially if a polyp or tissue is removed. Your provider can treat bleeding during the colonoscopy right away. If you continue to experience bleeding, they may need to do a repeat colonoscopy.

You may need surgery to correct a perforation.

Understanding the Results of a Colonoscopy

There’s something very important to remember about colonoscopies — they are screening tools, not diagnostic ones. This means that while they can find potential signs of cancer, they can’t diagnose it. If your colonoscopy results are suspicious, your provider will need to do further testing to make an exact diagnosis.

If your provider finds polyps, they will send them to a lab for testing. Don’t panic about this — polyps are very common and are usually harmless. However, most colorectal cancer begins as a polyp, so removing them can reduce your risk of cancer.

If your provider removes any abnormal tissue, it will be sent to a pathologist — a physician who specializes in examining tissue to diagnose diseases. It may take a few days to get the results, and your provider will call you or schedule an appointment to go over the results.

Why Choose Stormont

Located in Topeka, Kansas, Stormont Vail Health is a community-driven organization. It offers close to home care and with limited travel requirements, it will be easier for you to get the care you need in a community you trust.

In 2018, Stormont Vail achieved Magnet designation for a third time. Magnet designation is one of the highest awards in nursing excellence and high-quality patient care. Only 9% of US hospitals have earned this recognition. The Joint Commission — with more than 50 years of accrediting hospitals in high quality standards — has also accredited Stormont Vail Hospital.

With several gastroenterologists and a nursing team that’s been recognized for excellence with the prestigious Magnet designation, along with a specialized digestive health team at the Cotton O’Neil Digestive Health Center, Stormont Vail has an experienced and skilled medical team to help you maintain your colon and digestive health.

Next Steps

Make an Appointment

  • Treatment for colorectal cancer involves specialists from both the Digestive Health and Cancer departments.
  • Call (785) 270-4800 to schedule a colonoscopy. You do not need a referral.

See a Primary Care Provider

  • Call (785) 270-4440 to schedule an appointment with your Stormont Vail primary care provider.
  • Not a Stormont Vail patient? Call (785) 270-4440 to set up your first appointment with one of our primary care providers.