Avoid Freaking Out! Step-by-Step: Colonoscopy

Medically reviewed by: Gary H. Hoffman, MD

Has your doctor recommended that you get a colonoscopy? Are you dreading it? Delaying it? Avoiding it? You are not alone. Many people have obsessive fear about the before, during, and after aspects of the screening. However, a colonoscopy is necessary to determine the health of your colon and prevent possible cancers. Each year, roughly 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. When it comes to a colonoscopy, think of the phrase: “There is nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

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What is a Colonoscopy?

Many patients do not get a colonoscopy because their doctors did not mention to do so. Or, they avoid it because they are so scared about the process and preparation. It may be uncomfortable – both mentally and physically – but it is important to regularly have a colonoscopy screening, especially once you turn 50 years old.

Typically, a colonoscopy is performed by doctor who specialize in gastrointestinal tract problems such as a gastroenterologist or a colon and rectal surgeon. A colonoscopy is performed to find possible abnormalities, including polyps or cancers. Your doctor may remove polyps, but not all are cancerous. However, they can become cancerous later on, so they are removed.

If you are experiencing the following symptoms before the age of 50 , or if you have a family history of GI cancers, then a colonoscopy may be performed:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Changes in bowel movements (diarrhea or constipation)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss that cannot be explained

During a colonoscopy, a colonoscope is passed through your rectum and around your bowels. The colonoscope is a thin and flexible tube with a tiny camera that lets medical professionals see inside your bowels. It takes about 30-45 minutes to complete a colonoscopy.

Freaking Out and Fears

Have you heard horror stories about getting a colonoscopy? Are you afraid of the preparation or the procedure? The following are the most common aspects that paralyze people with fear:

  • Unable to eat anything for hours ahead of time
  • Drinking something the tastes salty
  • Going to the bathroom non-stop for bowel movements
  • Having something inserted in your rectum
  • Pain and bleeding
  • Being sedated or anesthetized
  • Feeling humiliated

Some of these are possible, but blown out of proportion. Also, many people delay getting a colonoscopy because they are afraid of being diagnosed with cancer. Yes, that is a possibility, as well. However, a colonoscopy can actually prevent cancer, as benign polyps grow slowly – over several years. Regular colonoscopy  screening provides a very high survival rate when cancer is detected early.

What to Expect

Most patients realize afterwards that they had nothing to fear or dread about a colonoscopy. Their fear had been exaggerated because of the unknown. To minimize your fear, here is exactly how to prepare and what to expect for a colonoscopy. Your doctor will provide specific instructions about a week before the screening.

At home:

  • Drink lots of fluids to hydrate – its hydration not fasting
  • Take the prep as instructed – call your doctor if you have trouble
  • Empty your bowels (may take several hours) so be near a restroom

At the Hospital/Clinic:

  • You will talk with your doctor and/or anesthesiologist before the procedure to make sure you are comfortable
  • Lie on left side, with knees pulled up near chest
  • Colonoscope is inserted through rectum to view bowels and intestines once you are comfortable
  • Air is inserted to expand and view colon
  • Polyps may be removed
  • Colonoscope is removed

After the colonoscopy is completed, you are placed in a room to recover. You may experience excessive gas, rectal bleeding, and cramping. These side effects should go away soon after. If you were sedated for the procedure, someone must drive you home, and you should not drive, drink alcohol, or operate machinery for about 24 hours. You will probably be hungry, so treat yourself to a burger and fries, or your favorite meal.

You may experience mild pain or discomfort during or after the procedure. But generally, you are just glad it is over.

Contact your doctor if you have severe and ongoing rectal bleeding, a fever, or abdominal pain after a couple weeks.

Nothing to Fear

A colonoscopy is critical to evaluate the health of your colon. Don’t avoid getting one if your doctor recommends it. There is nothing to fear – even wearing a hospital gown where your rear-end is exposed!

Have you had a colonoscopy? Why not? Contact your doctor today to schedule it.

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