What You Need to Know Before a Colonoscopy

Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 6:51:04 PM ET
Doctor's stethoscope CC0/Bru-nO/Pixabay

If your doctor has recommended a colonoscopy, you might have a few questions before proceeding. For example, are you worried about the procedure being uncomfortable or painful? Are there any dangers associated with a colonoscopy? The procedure is useful and effective for detecting colorectal cancer, the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in America. It can also help diagnose a host of other issues related to your colon. Here's what you need to know before a colonoscopy and how to prepare for it.

What Is a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is an exam that checks for any abnormalities or issues with your rectum or colon — also known as your large intestine. Before the procedure, the doctor gives you medication to relax you. During the procedure, the doctor uses a colonoscope that is half an inch in diameter. It's inserted through the rectum and into the colon. A camera on the scope sends images to a monitor viewed by the doctor. The scope also has a tube that allows the doctor to pump air to inflate your colon. The doctor may also use the scope to take a tissue sample or remove polyps. The procedure usually takes between 30 and 60 minutes.

Who Should Have a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is one method to screen for colon cancer. If you're at average risk, your doctor may recommend a colonoscopy at age 50 and every 10 years after that. A doctor may also recommend the procedure if you have certain problems, such as: Chronic stomach pain Bleeding of the rectum Chronic diarrhea Chronic constipation If you've had polyps before, you may need colonoscopies more often to check for and remove them. Most cases of colon cancer come from adenomatous polyps. By removing these polyps, you decrease your risk of cancer.

How Do You Prepare for the Procedure?

To prepare, your doctor gives you a colonoscopy prep about 24 hours before the exam to clear your colon. You also are restricted to only clear liquids, such as soup broth, coffee without milk or cream, and sports drinks. You may have to take a laxative the night before the colonoscopy or use an enema kit to empty out your colon. Your doctor needs a clear view of your colon for the examination. If you have residual stool in your colon, and your doctor can't do a full examination, you might have to do another colonoscopy about a year later.

After the Procedure

You should have someone pick you up and take you home after the exam because of the effects of the medication. The sedatives may need a full day to wear off. The exam may leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. If your doctor removed a polyp, you may have special instructions to follow. There can also be bleeding when you pass your first bowel movement after the procedure. If you have excessive bleeding or strong stomach pain, you should call your doctor right away. Your doctor will discuss the results with you.

Colonoscopies Can Reduce Your Risk of Cancer

As with any medical procedure, colonoscopies do have some risk, although complications are rare. One out of every 400 colonoscopies experiences issues, such as: Major bleeding where the biopsy was done Infection A tear or perforation in the colon Pain in the abdomen Colonoscopy procedures are an effective tool in screening for cancer, and they allow doctors to treat minor issues like polyps without the need for surgery. They can also detect issues before they become serious. New procedures include virtual colonoscopy. Discuss it with your doctor to see what is recommended based on your risk factors and age.