A colonoscopy typically lasts between 15 and 30 minutes. When complete, a nurse will take the patient into a recovery area, where the sedation quickly wears off.
Doctors do not necessarily think their patients have colon cancer if they suggest a colon cancer screening test. Screening tests are given when a person has no cancer symptoms in order to prevent colon cancer or catch it in its earliest stages. Once begun, they are typically repeated on a regular basis, which can vary from one year to every 10 years, depending on the patient’s medical history.
Certain habits, behaviors and environments are considered to be risk factors for colon cancer, based on scientific research. The presence of any of these risk factors may lead doctors to recommend a colonoscopy, which screening tests should be used and how often the tests should be done.
A colonoscopy allows a gastroenterologist to examine the interior lining of the colon and inspect for colon polyps, ulcers, tumors or lesions. If any abnormal tissue is found during the examination, the doctor will remove it immediately. If all looks good after the colonoscopy, the patient won’t have to schedule another one for 10 years.
One of the best benefits of a colonoscopy is that doctors can remove anything suspicious before it even becomes cancerous. The diagnostic and preventative qualities of a colonoscopy make it a powerful weapon to prevent colon cancer.
There are complications with any medical procedure. However, colonoscopies are safe and have minimal risk when performed by gastroenterologists, who have been specially trained and are experienced in these procedures.
One rare but major possible complication is perforation, in which a tear through the colon wall may allow leakage of intestinal fluids. It can be managed with antibiotics and intravenous fluids, although surgery is usually required. Bleeding may occur from the site of biopsy or colon polyp removal. It is usually minor and stops on its own. Rarely, transfusions or surgery may be required.
Localized irritation of the vein can occur at the site of medication injection. A tender lump develops, which may remain for several weeks to several months but goes away eventually. Other risks include drug reactions and complications from unrelated diseases such as heart attack or stroke. Death is extremely rare but remains a remote possibility.
In short, complications from these procedures are extremely rare, but they can happen. Your gastroenterologist can tell you more about colonoscopy risks.
For the best possible examination, the colon must be completely empty. Patients are asked to temporarily discontinue the use of aspirin products, iron tablets and possibly other medications before the examination.
The gastroenterologist will give detailed colonoscopy prep instructions to follow the day before the procedure, including the use of liquid laxatives and/or pills and fasting that will help ensure your colon is empty of all digested material on the day of the procedure. Patients should inform the gastroenterologist if they’re allergic to any drugs.
Patients will also need someone to drive them to and from the appointment because of the sedation and are not allowed to drive after the colon cancer screening.
Colonoscopy prep is certainly inconvenient, and the laxative materials patients are asked to swallow or drink can make them slightly queasy for a few minutes. This usually does not last long and is a small price to pay to prevent colon cancer.
If prep causes a nauseated feeling, the patient should inform their gastroenterologist. There are other options available next time that might help alleviate that inconvenience. Check out the colonoscopy prep page for tips and tricks to make the prep day more tolerable.
Virtual colonoscopy is slowly becoming available, but it is still in its very early stages, making its availability very limited.
Additionally, a virtual colonoscopy has limitations.
Since colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., the recommendation is not to wait to get a colonoscopy if a patient presently meets the screening guidelines. If no colon polyps are found and if this technology progresses, the next colonoscopy could be a virtual colonoscopy.