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Everything You Want to Know About Colonoscopies But Are Afraid to Ask

March 8, 2018
Published in: Screening

Man covering his eyes

Colon and rectal cancer are the 2nd leading causes of cancer death in the United States. A colonoscopy is the "Gold Standard" screening test that saves lives through early detection and removal of masses. The American Cancer Society reports that having a colonoscopy decreases your risk of developing colon cancer by a whopping 80 percent. Yet, many people avoid having this potentially lifesaving screening because of embarrassment, fear, or misunderstanding.

We've compiled a list of the most common questions about colonoscopies. Put your fears and embarrassment aside. Here's everything you want to know about colonoscopies but are afraid to ask.

Who Should Schedule a Screening?

You should schedule a colonoscopy if you:

  • Are between 50 and 75 years old
  • Have a history of polyps (pre-cancerous growths) or colon cancer
  • Have a family history of polyps or cancer – Begin getting colonoscopies 10 years prior to the age of your family member that had polyps or colon cancer
  • Have changes in bowel movements
  • Have blood in your stool
  • Experience cramping or abdominal pain
  • Have unplanned weight loss and/or weakness

High-fat diets, alcohol use, smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise increase your risk of colon cancer. People of Eastern European and Jewish descent are also at increased risk. Always discuss any abnormal symptoms with your doctor. Your doctor may recommend more frequent colonoscopies based on your symptoms.

What is a Colonoscopy Exactly?

Illustration of intestines inside the abdomen

A colonoscopy allows your doctor to see your entire large intestines including your rectum and colon. The procedure helps your doctor find polyps, tumors, signs of colon or rectum cancer, or other abnormalities. During a colonoscopy, your doctor may take a tissue sample for further testing and remove polyps or growths.

How Do I Prepare for a Colonoscopy?

Preparing for your colonoscopy typically begins 1 to 2 days before your procedure. Your bowels must be empty before your colonoscopy. To accomplish this, your doctor will have you restrict solid food intake for at least 24 hours before your procedure. Usually, clear liquids are still ok to consume.

You'll also take an oral bowel-prep solution or medicine. This causes frequent bowel movements and diarrhea. Plan to stay home during your bowel prep. You'll want the comfort and proximity of your own bathroom!

Some people have trouble taking the bowel-prep solution or complain that it tastes bad. In fact, most people have more discomfort during the bowel-prep than they do during the actual colonoscopy. Having clear liquids to drink after your bowel-prep can offset some of the unpleasant taste. Make sure to follow your doctor's instructions for your bowel-prep.

Who Performs My Colonoscopy?

Doctor holding his patient's hand

Usually, a gastroenterologist that specializes in the digestive tract will perform your colonoscopy. There may be a nurse or other medical professional present to assist your doctor.

Will I Be in a Private Space to Get the Test?

Yes, your colonoscopy is performed in a private space. Your privacy is very important to us. If you have privacy concerns, please don't hesitate to let us know.

What Happens During a Colonoscopy?

You'll need to change clothes and wear a hospital gown for the procedure. You'll lay on your left side on an exam table and pull your knees towards your stomach. You'll also be given a sedative for your comfort through a tube in your arm.

The doctor then puts a thin, flexible tube-like instrument with video capabilities into your anus and moves it slowly through your rectum and into your colon. Your doctor sees the image of your intestines on a computer screen. Air is used to inflate your colon, so your doctor has a clear view of the colon lining. You may feel or hear some of this air escape. Don't be embarrassed! This is a natural part of a colonoscopy. Your doctor may also use small tools to take a tissue sample or remove a growth.

Lastly, the scope is slowly pulled out of your anus. You may pass gas at this point, another natural part of the process. Some cramping and passing gas after the test is also normal. The test usually takes 30 to 45 minutes to complete.

Does a Colonoscopy Hurt?

Most people don't find colonoscopies to be painful because of the sedation. Because air is pumped into your colon, you may have some cramping in your lower abdomen which usually dissipates after the procedure. Most people dislike the bowel-prep before the procedure more than the colonoscopy itself.

What Are the Risks?

Woman smiling in doctors officeAny medical procedure comes with risks. Rarely, a puncture or tear may occur during your colonoscopy. Contact your doctor if you have any of these symptoms after your colonoscopy:

  • Heavy rectal bleeding
  • Severe pain
  • Vomiting
  • Swollen or hard stomach

The Power of Colonoscopies

In addition to screening for colon and rectal cancer, colonoscopies help identify causes of:

  • Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding
  • Dark stool
  • Anemia
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Stomach pain

It's understandable why people are hesitant to ask about colonoscopies. However, fear or embarrassment shouldn't prevent you from having this important procedure. Our dedicated Augusta Health Gastroenterology team is here to support you every step of the way.