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Colonoscopy is a common exam that doctors use to detect changes or abnormalities in the large intestine (colon) and rectum.
During the exam, a long flexible tube (colonoscope) is gently inserted into the rectum. Using a tiny video camera poised at the tip of the tube, your doctor views the inside of your entire colon. Your doctor may also use a second device inserted through the same tube to remove polyps or tissue samples during the colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy is typically recommended to investigate gastro-intestinal symptoms (pain, bleeding, chronic constipation or diarrhea).
It is also the gold standard exam to screen for colon cancer. If you’re age 50 or over your doctor may recommend a colonoscopy every 10 years, sometimes sooner given other factors, such as a family history. There are additional options for colon cancer screening, and you’re encouraged to discuss your options with your doctor.
Before a colonoscopy, you need to clean out or empty your colon as residue would obscure your doctor’s view during the exam. Your doctor will give you precise instructions, but in general you can expect them to include these basic steps:
- Follow a special diet the day before your colonoscopy. Most often, you won’t be able to eat solid food the day before your exam. And, you’ll be restricted from eating or drinking after midnight the night before. Note: having your exam in the morning the next day will allow you to eat sooner after your exam than if it’s scheduled in the afternoon.
- Take a laxative the night before your exam. Your doctor will give you specific instructions for this.
- Adjust medications. Remind your doctor of your medications. Depending on what you’re taking, he or she may adjust your dosages temporarily.
Once your preparation is complete and you’ve checked into the hospital’s Admitting Department, you’ll change into a hospital gown. You’ll also be mildly sedated just before the exam for your comfort. This medication is often given intravenously.
You’ll lie on your left side as the exam begins, and that may be the last thing you remember before you wake up. With your knees drawn toward your chest, your doctor will insert the colonoscope into your rectum. The scope is long enough to view the entire length of your colon and contains a light and a tube through which the doctor will lightly pump air or CO2 to inflate your colon for optimal viewing of the colon tissues. Your doctor will slowly draw the tube back out and inspect the lining of your colon during this time.
The colonoscope contains a tiny camera that may be used to take images of specific tissues or suspected abnormalities. Your doctor may also insert an instrument through the same tube to take tissue samples or remove polyps. These tissues are sent to a lab for biopsy after the exam.
The entire colonoscopy usually takes 20 minutes to an hour. Your doctor will discuss results with you personally following your exam.