Understanding a Colonoscopy

Understanding a Colonoscopy

Your physician has determined that a colonoscopy is necessary for further evaluation or treatment of your condition.  The following information has been prepared to help you understand the procedure.  It includes the answers to questions patients ask most frequently.  Please read it carefully.  If you have additional questions, please feel free to discuss them with the endoscopy nurse or your physician before the examination begins.

What is a colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy is a procedure that enables your physician to examine the lining of the colon (large bowel) for abnormalities by inserting a flexible tube that is about the thickness of your finger into the anus and advancing it slowly into the rectum and colon.

What preparation is required?
The colon must be completely clean for the procedure to be accurate and complete.  Your physician will give you detailed instructions regarding the dietary restrictions to be followed and the cleansing routine to be used.  In general, preparation consists of either consumption of a large volume of a special cleansing solution or several days of clear liquids, laxatives, and enemas prior to the examination.  Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully.  If you do not, the procedure may have to be canceled and rescheduled.

What about my current medications?
Most medications may be continued as usual, but some medications can interfere with the preparation or the examination.  It is therefore best to inform the physician of your current medication as well as any allergies to medications several days prior to the examination.  Aspirin products, arthritis medications, anticoagulants (blood thinners), insulin, and iron products are examples of medications whose use should be discussed with your physician prior to the examination. 

What can be expected during the colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy is usually well tolerated and rarely causes much pain.  There is often a feeling of pressure, bloating, or cramping at times during the procedure.  Your doctor may give you medication through a vein to help you relax and better tolerate any discomfort from the procedure.  You will be lying on your side or on your back while the colon scope is advanced slowly through the large intestine.  As the colon scope is slowly withdrawn, the lining is again carefully examined.  The procedure usually takes 15 to 60 minutes.  In some cases, passage of the colon scope through the entire colon to its junction with the small intestine cannot be achieved.  The physician will decide if the limited examination is sufficient or if another examination is necessary.

What if the colonoscopy shows something abnormal?
If your doctor thinks an area of the bowel needs to be evaluated in greater detail, a forceps instrument is passed through the colon scope to obtain a biopsy (a sample of the colon lining).  This specimen is submitted to the pathology laboratory for analysis.  If the colonoscopy is being performed to identify sites of bleeding, the areas of bleeding may be controlled through the colon scope by injecting certain medication or by coagulation (sealing off bleeding vessels with heat treatment).  If polyps are found, they are generally removed.  None of these additional procedures typically produce pain.  Remember, the biopsies are taken for many reasons and do not necessarily mean that cancer is suspected.

What are polyps and why are they removed?
Polyps are abnormal growths from the lining of the colon which vary in size from a tiny dot to several inches.  The majority of polyps are benign (noncancerous) but the doctor cannot always tell a benign from a malignant (cancerous) polyp by its outer appearance alone.  For this reason, removed polyps are sent for tissue analysis.  Removal of colon polyps is an important means of preventing colorectal cancer.

How are polyps removed?
Tiny polyps may be totally destroyed by fulguration (burning), but larger polyps are removed by a technique called snare polypectomy.  The doctor passes a wire loop (snare) through the colon scope and severs the attachment of the polyp from the intestinal wall by means of an electrical current.  You should feel no pain during the polypectomy.  There is a small risk that removing the polyp will cause bleeding or result in a burn to the wall of the colon, which could require emergency surgery.

What happens after the colonoscopy?
After the colonoscopy, your physician will explain the results to you.  If you have been given medications during the procedure, someone must accompany you home from the procedure because of the sedation used during the examination.  Even if you feel alert after the procedure, your judgment and reflexes may be impaired by the sedation for the rest of the day, making it unsafe for you to drive or operate any machinery.

You may have some cramping or bloating because of the air introduced into the colon during the examination.  This should disappear quickly with passage of flatus (gas).  Generally, you should be able to eat after leaving the endoscopy unit but your doctor may restrict your diet and activities, especially after a polypectomy.

 What are possible complications of colonoscopy?
Colonoscopies and polypectomies are generally safe when performed by a physician who has been specially trained and are experienced in these endoscopic procedures.

 One possible complication is a perforation or tear through the bowel wall that could require surgery.  Bleeding may occur from the site of biopsy or polypectomy.  It is usually minor and stops on its own or can be controlled through the colon scope.  Rarely, blood transfusions or surgery may be required.  Other potential risks include a reaction to the sedatives used and complications from heart or lung disease.  Localized irritation of the vein where medications were injected may rarely case a tender lump lasting for several weeks, but this will go away eventually.  Applying hot packs or hot moist towels may help relieve this discomfort.

 Although complications from a colonoscopy are uncommon, it is important for you to recognize early signs of any possible complication.  Contact your physician who performed the colonoscopy if you notice any of the following symptoms: severe abdominal pain, fever and chills, or rectal bleeding of more that one-half cup.  Bleeding can occur several days after polypectomy.

 To the patient:
Because education is an important part of comprehensive medical care, you have been provided with this information to prepare you for this procedure.  If you have questions about your need for a colonoscopy, alternative tests, the cost of the procedure, methods of billing, or insurance coverage, do not hesitate to speak to your doctor or your doctor’s office staff.  Most endoscopists are highly trained specialists and welcome your questions regarding their credentials and training.  If you have questions that have not been answered, please discuss them with the endoscopy nurse or your physician before the examination begins.

 After the colonoscopy, the office will notify you of the results when they are available.

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