Are Colonoscopies Really That Bad?   

Are Colonoscopies Really That Bad?

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Robert E. Khoo, M.D.
There are probably a few things you dread about hitting your middle-aged years, but getting a colonoscopy is usually pretty high on the list.

Most doctors will recommend you get a colonoscopy when you turn 45 years old to check for colorectal cancer. It’s the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., but it’s generally a slow-growing cancer that is treatable if caught early enough. Colonoscopies and other tests help doctors find the cancer early and begin treatment.

“The earlier we are able to catch this cancer, the better chance we have at treating it effectively,” says Southern Ocean Medical Center colorectal surgeon, Robert Khoo, M.D.

Knowing what to expect when going for a colonoscopy can help calm your nerves and get you through the exam with minimal discomfort.

Here are the answers to five of the top questions about colonoscopies, that’ll help you determine if they’re really as bad as you think:

Does it hurt?

Most patients are sedated through conscious sedation or twilight sleep and don’t feel anything during the exam. Many patients don’t even remember they had a procedure! Some doctors prefer patients to be a bit more awake through the procedure and conduct the exam with minor sedation and pain relievers. Ask your doctor about what kind of sedation is right for you.

What is the prep like?

“To have a successful colonoscopy, your bowel must be completely clear so that your doctor can see your colon and assess for polyps or other signs of disease,” notes Dr. Khoo.

There are many types of prep strategies, but they generally cover diet and drinking bowel-cleansing liquids. Your doctor will give you complete instructions, including information about certain types of food and medications to avoid about two weeks before the exam.

  • A few days before the procedure, start eating a low-fiber diet. You’ll have to avoid whole grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruit or raw vegetables.
  • The day before you’ll switch to a liquid diet. Be sure to stock up on clear broth, black coffee or tea, clear juices, sports drinks, popsicles, etc.
  • The afternoon or evening before your procedure, you’ll begin drinking the bowel-clearing liquid. Bowel movements usually start within one to three hours of taking the prep. Mixing the prep with a clear liquid, like your favorite sports drink, will make it go down easier. You will likely experience high-volume and high-velocity diarrhea. Plan to be near a bathroom, with plenty of reading material and toilet paper. Pick up medicated wipes and a skin-soothing product to apply after bowel movements to prevent irritation.
  • The day of the colonoscopy you will be told not to eat or drink anything before the procedure. Ask your doctor about taking any daily medication or supplements.

How long does it take?

A colonoscopy generally takes 30 minutes to an hour to complete.

The doctor will examine the colon using a flexible camera that’s inserted into the anus. The goal is usually to find cancers at an early stage so your doctor can provide the best treatment option for your best possible outcome. This can include removing precancerous polyps before they turn into cancer.

Doctors also perform colonoscopies to diagnose symptoms like weight loss, changes in stool and rectal bleeding.

How is recovery?

After the exam, it usually takes about an hour to recover from the sedatives. You’ll wake up in a recovery room for observation until you’re ready to go home.

  • You will probably feel some cramping or bloating, this should go away quickly and walking around helps.
  • Avoid alcohol, driving and operating heavy machinery for 24 hours after the procedure.
  • If you had polyps removed or biopsies taken you might see some light bleeding for a couple days after the procedure. Your doctor will tell you when its safe to start taking blood thinners again.

When will I know the results?

It can definitely be scary waiting to hear about medical test results. “Your doctor may be able to tell you some basic findings about the appearance of the colon and if any biopsies were taken right away,” Dr. Khoo says.

If biopsies or polyps were removed, it may take a few days to learn more about the samples. Follow-up appointments are usually recommended to go over the findings.

So overall, despite what your friends might say, or what you read on the internet, colonoscopies really aren’t that bad. The prep is probably the worst part, but it’s all necessary and a worthwhile sacrifice when it comes to protecting your health.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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