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  1. Pullen, Richard L. Jr. RN, EdD

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What is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is a procedure that lets your healthcare provider see inside your colon, or large intestine, to look for early signs of colon cancer or other problems, such as abnormal growths called polyps. A long, thin, flexible tube with a tiny video camera and a light on the end, called a colonoscope, is inserted through your rectum after you've been given medicine to help you relax and feel comfortable. Pictures of the inside of your colon are shown on a monitor screen.


How do I prepare for a colonoscopy?

Your healthcare provider will give you written instructions about how to prepare for your colonoscopy a few days before the procedure. Read them carefully and follow the directions. Tell your healthcare provider about any medical conditions you have, especially diabetes, heart problems, or breathing problems. Report your allergies and medicines, including over-the-counter medicines like aspirin, vitamins, supplements, and herbal products. After you receive an explanation of the procedure, you'll be asked to read and sign a consent form.


Your colon must be completely empty before your colonoscopy. There are many ways to clean out your colon, such as special diets, enemas, suppositories, or special liquids or pills, so you'll have to carefully read and follow the directions your healthcare provider gives you. Plan to stay near bathroom facilities after you start the cleaning routine.


You'll also be given special instructions that you'll need to follow about what you can eat or drink before your colonoscopy, when you need to stop eating and drinking, and what medicines you can take, as well as those you need to stop taking before the procedure.


Ask a family member or friend to drive you to the procedure and stay with you afterward. Because of the medicine you'll be given, you won't be allowed to drive yourself home.


What happens during the colonoscopy?

You can have your colonoscopy done in a hospital, an outpatient surgical center, or your healthcare provider's office. Plan to spend 1 to 3 hours for the procedure. When you arrive, you'll put on a hospital gown and an I.V. will be put in your arm. You'll receive medicine through your I.V. to help you relax and feel comfortable. You may not remember much, if anything, about the procedure because of this medicine. You'll be asked to lie on your side and the healthcare provider will carefully and slowly insert the colonoscope into your rectum. Your blood pressure and other vital signs are monitored during the procedure, which usually takes 30 to 60 minutes.


If your healthcare provider sees any polyps or other abnormal growths in your colon, he may remove them during the colonoscopy. Tissue samples may also be taken to test in the lab for certain diseases of the colon (this test is called a biopsy). When the healthcare provider has finished with the procedure, he'll slowly withdraw the colonoscope.


What can I expect after a colonoscopy?

You may have some mild cramping, bloating, or gas after the procedure, but it should go away in 24 hours or less. Because of the medicine you receive during the colonoscopy, you won't be able to drive or perform any activities requiring mental alertness for about 24 hours after the procedure, so make sure someone is with you who can drive you home. You'll be monitored until most of the effects of the medicine have worn off, and you'll receive specific instructions about when you can eat, drink, and resume your other normal activities.


Your healthcare provider will discuss the results with you before you leave.


If you have severe abdominal pain, fever, bloody bowel movements, dizziness, weakness, or other unusual symptoms after the procedure, contact your healthcare provider immediately or call 911.