Jefferson University Hospitals

What is a Colonoscopy?

When patients get a colonoscopy, doctors are performing an examination of the lining of the colon, also referred to as the large intestine, to look for abnormal growths called polyps, inflammation, bleeding sites or ulcers. It is used to understand why patients have symptoms such as abdominal pain, blood in the stool, weight loss or a change in bowel habits.

The procedure is also performed to detect polyps and cancer in patients without symptoms. Colon polyps do not often cause symptoms which is why a screening is recommended.

Colonoscopy is diagnostic and can be therapeutic. If a polyp is found when patients are getting a colonoscopy, it can be removed during the exam and sent to the lab to see if it contains cancer cells. Most polyps are benign (do not contain cancer), but virtually all colon cancer begins as a polyp. Therefore, removing polyps at an early stage is an effective way to prevent colon cancer.

When polyps are found at an early stage they are usually removed easily and completely. Polyps can grow and eventually contain cancer. When colon cancer is found at later stages it is often fatal.

How Long Does a Colonoscopy Take & How is it Performed?

A colonoscopy could take less than 30 minutes, but sometimes can take longer if multiple polyps are found. Colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure. Sedation is administered by a certified nurse anesthetist. This "conscious sedation" makes a patient very sleepy and relaxed, but it does not involve general anesthesia. While lying on the left side on a comfortable stretcher, the thin flexible tube is inserted through the anus and the entire colon is examined. There is a small video camera inside the scope that gives the physician a clear view, and pictures can be taken of any abnormal findings.

Is There Any Pain or Discomfort After the Colonoscopy Procedure?

Following the colonoscopy procedure, the patient remains in the recovery area for about one hour to ensure that the vital signs are stable and that he/she can tolerate juice and crackers without getting sick. The colon is insufflated with air during the exam, so some retained gas is common. The patient may experience cramping or bloating, and may pass gas for several hours. The average patient is fully recovered and back to a normal routine on the following day.

The doctor will talk to the patient and review the findings of the exam. The nurse will again read and review written discharge instructions from the doctor before the patient leaves the Endoscopy Unit. In rare instances a patient may develop side effects and should call the doctor immediately if experiencing any of the following:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness

Because sedation is administered, each patient must be accompanied by a relative or friend at discharge. The restrictions following sedation include no driving for 24 hours and no drinking of alcohol for 24 hours.

At What Age Should Colonoscopy Begin and How Often Should it be Repeated?

Studies suggest that a colonoscopy at age 50 can be helpful at detecting the early signs of colon cancer. However, there are certain risk factors that lead some patients to begin colonoscopy at an age younger than 50, such as:

  • If a patient has a first-degree (parent, sibling, child) relative has had colon polyps or colon cancer. The formula determining the first screening exam considers the age when the affected relative was diagnosed. For example, if a parent is diagnosed at age 50, then screening should begin when the patient is 10 years younger - at 40 years of age.
  • When a patient has a personal history of colon polyps or colon cancer.
  • If the patient has a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease including Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.
  • If the patient has a personal history of uterine or ovarian cancer before the age of 50.

When the colonoscopy is repeated will be determined by the findings at the initial examination. If a patient has no polyps and no family history or other risk factors listed above, they are often instructed to return in 10 years. The important point to remember is that a patient should call his/her doctor and return immediately if he/she develops new symptoms or signs such as rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits or abdominal pain. A patient might also need repeat colonoscopy sooner if a new diagnosis of colon polyps or colon cancer is made in a family member.

If a patient has no polyps or cancer, but they have a family history of colon polyps or cancer, they will likely be asked to return for colonoscopy every five years.

For patients who do have colon polyps found during the exam, they will be asked to return at a time interval depending on how many polyps are found, how large they are and the pathology report. Each case will be discussed in great detail with the doctor who performed the colonoscopy exam. If multiple polyps are found, the exam may have to be repeated in three years. If a very large polyp is found, colonoscopy may even be repeated within one year to ensure that all the polyp tissue was removed.

Schedule a Colonoscopy

Call 1-800-JEFF-NOW (1-800-533-3669) to schedule a colonoscopy with a Jefferson Health specialist.