A colonoscopy is a procedure that allows the colon (the medical term for the bowels or intestines) to be examined by a doctor or surgeon. The technique was introduced in the 1950s as an alternative to surgery and was soon widely adopted as it puts the body under much less stress than surgery, involves no incisions or scarring and recovery time is minimal in comparison.

A colonoscope is effectively a length of tubing with a camera, light and various surgical appliances on the end, which is inserted into the body via the anus. The doctor is then able to inspect the bowel, with a video image from the camera shown on a large screen.

During the colonoscopy, the doctor is also able to take tissue samples (biopsies) and if necessary perform small scale surgery, such as removing polyps. They are also able perform other interventions through the colonoscopy, which required open surgery in the past.

Most colonoscopies are relatively quick, with only a short observation required afterwards before patients are able to leave.

A colonoscopy is often recommended where any of the following apply...

  • Any family history of bowel cancer
  • Any previous polyps found or removed
  • Rectal bleeding
  • A positive FOBT
  • Investigate symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhoea or change in bowel habits
  • Investigate anaemia

Prior to a colonoscopy the bowels must be completely empty and this involves taking medication the day before the procedure to ensure the bowels are clear.

The procedure itself generally takes no more than half an hour, often less and is conducted with the patient under mild sedation. The observation period afterwards is short - generally 1-2 hours and patients can leave after this when given the OK by medical staff. It is important that you do not drive or operate any machinery until the following day.

Your doctor will discuss the risks associated with colonoscopy, based on your individual circumstances. Overall a routine diagnostic colonoscopy is extremely safe and has a complication rate of around 1:1000 to 1:10000.