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Colonoscopy Overview


Updated: March 2, 2008

A colonoscopy provides an inside look at your colon and rectum. Although colonoscopy screening offers a combination of benefits that other colon cancer tests don't, it has its share of drawbacks. This colonoscopy overview provides unbiased basics to help you decide if a colonoscopy is right for you.

Colonoscopy Prep

You'll need to start clearing out your colon before your colonoscopy. This is important because if there's crap in the way (literally), the camera won't be able to get a good look at the walls of your colon and rectum. Proper colonoscopy prep varies from patient to patient, so make sure you follow your doctor's instructions to the letter.

Colonoscopy Procedure

Shortly before the procedure begins, you'll be given pain medication and a sedative to minimize discomfort during the colonoscopy. When you're ready, you'll be asked to lie on your side as the doctor inserts a colonoscope into your anus and threads it through your rectum, all the way to the end of your colon.

The colonoscope sends a video feed to a monitor. While the inside of your large intestine is featured on the big screen, the doctor can remove polyps (pre-cancerous growths) and take tissue samples of any suspicious areas. The whole procedure lasts 30 minutes to an hour. Because of the medication, you'll be unlikely to remember much of what happened.

After the Colonoscopy

After the colonoscopy, the doctor usually provides photographs of any polyps that were identified. You'll probably be asked to restrict certain activities, watch for certain symptoms (like chills or significant rectal bleeding), and, if you've had a polyp removed, avoid taking some medications. To get a better idea of what you may be asked to do, please read What to do After a Colonoscopy.

Benefits of Colonoscopy Screening

Colonoscopy screening offers a combination of benefits that other colon cancer tests don't. Some of the benefits include the following:

  • You get to see what the inside of your colon looks like.
  • Any polyps that are present can usually be removed right then.
  • If all is well, most people can wait ten years before getting another one.

Drawbacks of a Colonoscopy

Like every medical procedure, a colonoscopy has its share of drawbacks. One is the discomfort (emotionally and physically) of having a camera inserted into your anus and threaded through your colon. Although medication helps alleviate this issue during the procedure, anticipating the discomfort can prevent people from scheduling a colonoscopy in the first place.

Another drawback is the risk associated with the procedure. Possible complications of a colonoscopy include bleeding, intestinal perforation (poking a hole in the gut), infection, adverse reaction to the sedatives, and chemical colitis (bowel inflammation). However, these complications rarely occur. For more information, please read the Overview of Colonoscopy Risks.

Frequency of a Colonoscopy

How often you should receive a colonoscopy varies depending on your personal medical history and family history. The standard recommendation is that everyone receive some sort of colon cancer test beginning at age 50. If a colonoscopy is the screening method of choice, the recommended frequency is every ten years.

It gets trickier if you have a family or personal history of polyps, certain cancers, inherited conditions (like HNPCC and FAP), or inflammatory bowel disease. That's why it's extremely important to talk to your doctor about initial and follow-up colon cancer screening.

Cost of a Colonoscopy

A colonoscopy costs anywhere from $800 - $1,200 out-of-pocket, but is often covered by insurance. For more information about paying for a colonoscopy, please read Colon Cancer Screening for the Uninsured and Medicare Benefits for Colorectal Cancer Screening.

Related Articles:


Colonoscopy. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Nov. 2005. 17 Oct. 2006 [http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/colonoscopy/index.htm].

Colorectal (Colon) Cancer Screening Guidelines. CDC. 27 Jul. 2006. 13 Oct. 2006 [http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/basic_info/screening/guidelines.htm].

Detailed Guide: Colon and Rectum Cancer: Can Colorectal Polyps and Cancer Be Found Early? American Cancer Society. 7 Mar. 2006. 13 Oct. 2006 [http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_3X_Can_colon_and_rectum_cancer_be_found_early.asp?sitearea=].

Pignone, M. and Rich, M. Summary of the Evidence: Screening for Colorectal Cancer in Adults at Average Risk. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. 13 Oct. 2006 [http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/3rduspstf/colorectal/colosum1.htm].

Rex, D. "Screening for Colon Cancer and Evaluation of Chemoprevention with Coxibs." Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 23.4 (Apr. 2002): S41-S50. PubMed. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=11992750&dopt=Abstract].

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