A colonoscopy is an exam used to detect changes or abnormalities in the large intestine (colon) and rectum. Your doctor uses a long, thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end to see deep inside your colon. This health screening is done for a variety of reasons, primarily, detecting colorectal cancer in its earliest stages. Here’s why a colonoscopy is important as well as what to expect when getting one.
Why and when to get one
A colonoscopy is most used frequently for precancerous lesions. Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly occurring cancer in men and the second most common in women. It can also be used to diagnose other gut-related issues or causes of abdominal pain including:
- chronic constipation
- chronic diarrhoea
- rectal bleeding (such as haemorrhoids)
- colitis (inflammation of the colon)
- diverticular disease (affects colon wall)
Preparation for a colonoscopy
A colonoscopy is a good idea for people who are 45 years and older. If someone in your family has had colon cancer you may have to have the screening done earlier. The gastroenterologist will use a colonoscope (long, thin, flexible tube) to look inside your rectum and colon. The scope needs a clear view, which is to say you need to flush out your bowel so that little to no stool remains inside the colon. Your doctor will provide specific instructions, but it usually involves these steps:
Clear liquid diet
Typically, you will not be able to eat any solid food the day before the colonoscopy and drinks may be limited to clear liquids. Following the prescribed diet is critical.
- Black coffee
- Plain tea
- Ginger ale
- Fruit juice (clear)
- Broth (clear)
- Gelatin (clear)
- Carbonated beverages
Drinks to avoid
- Red and purple liquids (they can be confused with blood during the procedure)
- Orange juice (is pulpy)
- Sports drinks
Take a laxative
Your doctor may recommend a laxative in either pill or liquid form to help the process along.
Use an enema kit
You may have to use an over-the-counter enema kit to empty the colon, though this is not recommended as the primary way to clear the colon before a colonoscopy.
If you are on any medication, your doctor should adjust the dosage at least a week before the exam. This is especially important for people taking medication for diabetes, high blood pressure, or the heart. It’s also important for people on blood thinners and anticoagulants.
During the colonoscopy, you’ll wear a gown and nothing else. You will likely receive a mild sedative in the form of a pill. The sedative may be combined with intravenous pain medication to minimize the discomfort.
You’ll lie on the exam table on your side with your knees drawn towards your chest. The doctor will then insert the colonoscope into your rectum. The colonoscope works by pumping air into the colon thus inflating it and providing a better view of the lining of the colon. The camera attached to the thin tube sends the images to an external monitor. When the exam is done, and the tube removed you may feel abdominal cramping or the urge to have a bowel movement.
It takes about an hour to recover from the sedative and you’ll need someone to take you home because it can take up to a day for the full effects of the sedative to wear off. You may feel bloated or pass gas a few hours after the colonoscopy as you clear air from your colon. Walking may help relieve this discomfort.
You may notice some blood with your first bowel movement which is normal after a colonoscopy. There may be cause for concern if you continue to pass blood or blood clots or if you have persistent abdominal pain, and/or a fever.
A negative result means there were no irregularities with your colon. A positive one shows the doctor found polyps or abnormal tissue in the colon. Treatment will depend on each individual’s results.
A colonoscopy can save your life. It can detect colon cancer early and even prevent it by removing polyps (abnormal cells or tissue).
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