What to expect during a colonoscopy

If “schedule a colonoscopy” keeps getting pushed to the bottom of your to-do list, it’s time to make it a priority. Most adults should start colorectal cancer screening at age 50, unless otherwise noted by their primary care physician. Some factors, including family history, can serve as reasons to consider a screening before 50.

Colonoscopy is a common screening test that’s used to detect polyps—growths that can become cancer—as well as colorectal cancer. While a colonoscopy may not be the most pleasant test you’ll ever have, most people will only need one every 10 years. Your doctor can remove polyps, if you have any, during the same procedure. Once you make the appointment, here’s what you can expect. 

Preparing for a Colonoscopy

Before a colonoscopy, you’ll receive instructions on how to cleanse your bowel for the exam. For example, your doctor may recommend taking laxatives, so it’s a good idea to stay home, so you’re near a bathroom. This is often done the night before the procedure. 
The prep should be painless, but may be uncomfortable. It is most important that you follow the instructions your doctor provides. If there’s still stool, your doctor may have a hard time seeing the inside of your colon clearly, and your procedure may be postponed.

During a Colonoscopy 

You’ll have a colonoscopy performed in a hospital or an outpatient center. A typical colonoscopy takes about 30 to 60 minutes. The procedure is most often done under conscious sedation. This means you’ll receive a pain reliever and a sedative before the procedure. You’ll be able to communicate during the colonoscopy, but the medicine helps keep you relaxed and reduces pain and discomfort. It also may have a temporary amnesia effect, so you may not remember the procedure even though you are not completely asleep.
During the procedure, you’ll lie on your side on a table. Your doctor will insert a special tool, called a colonoscope, into your rectum and guide it into your colon. 
The colonoscope has a camera that sends a video image of your bowel to a monitor. If your doctor finds any polyps during the procedure, he or she may remove them and send them to a lab for testing. 
If your doctor sees any abnormalities during the procedure, he or she may remove small pieces of tissue and send them to a pathologist for examination.

After a Colonoscopy

Following the procedure, you’ll recover for one to two hours before you can go home. You’ll need to arrange for a ride home ahead of time. You won’t be able to drive for 24 hours in order to give the sedatives time to completely wear off. You may experience abdominal cramping or bloating for about an hour after the procedure. If your doctor performed a biopsy, you may have some light bleeding. Follow all your doctor’s instructions on how to care for yourself after having a colonoscopy. You should feel back to normal by the next day.

Next Steps

Your doctor will share the results with you after your colonoscopy. If you had a biopsy, it may take at least a few days to receive the results. 
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