While colonoscopies are important and even life-saving gastroenterology procedures, just the mention of one can cause alarm. If you're awaiting a colonoscopy you may have heard horror stories about the preparation, the procedure itself or the recovery. Understanding more about the procedure can help calm these fears, though your gastroenterologist is the best person to discuss your fears and concerns with.
Preparation is a crucial part of a colonoscopy. Your bowels need to be as clean as possible so that your gastroenterologist can get a good view of all parts of your bowel. Different gastroenterology practices have different preparation procedures, so make sure you have clear instructions and understand exactly what you need to do. Generally, you'll need to change your diet for a day or two before the procedure. This means avoiding foods that leave a lot of residue in your bowels which can make it hard to get good pictures. You'll also need to take certain medications which clear out your bowels quickly before the procedure. An hour or two later, you'll begin to pass a large amount of very loose, watery faeces. Expect to spend a lot of time on the toilet on the night before the colonoscopy! This can be uncomfortable, though it shouldn't be painful. You'll also need to drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated.
The colonoscopy procedure
When you arrive for your colonoscopy you'll be admitted to the clinic or hospital. You'll need to change into a gown and remove your underwear just before the procedure. You'll be asked some questions and have your vital signs checked to make sure that you're well for the procedure. If you haven't signed a consent your gastroenterologist will discuss the colonoscopy with you then before gaining your consent. If you have any last minute questions now is the time to ask them.
When you get into the procedure room you'll be asked to lie on your side with your knees drawn up, before being given some medication by an anaesthetist. Exactly what you are given depends on the reason for the procedure, what your specific gastroenterology concern is and your general health. The anaesthetic chosen is usually a light sedative. You won't be in pain or remember the procedure but you won't be completely asleep during it either.
Once you're sedated your gastroenterologist will work with the nurses to put a small camera into your anus so that they can look in your bowel. This piece of equipment is called a scope and has a camera and a small light on it. Gas is inserted into your bowel via the scope to inflate it and water is sometimes used to wash the bowel to get even clearer pictures. The scope is flexible so that different areas of the bowel can be visualised clearly. Your gastroenterologist may take pictures or samples of any lesions such as polyps. Colonoscopies usually take less than half an hour, though they may take longer depending on what is found.
After the colonoscopy
Once the colonoscopy has finished you will be transferred to another area to recover. Many people wake up and are unaware the procedure has already been completed. You may be a little confused and drowsy at this point. Once you've recovered enough that your anaesthetist is happy you can go home, however you will need someone else to accompany you. You generally cannot drive for 24 hours after any sedation such as that used for a colonoscopy, though your gastroenterologist and anaesthetist will give you clear instructions on this.
Sometimes your doctor will discuss the results of the colonoscopy on the day. In other cases, you will need to wait for your follow up appointment with the gastroenterology clinic to find out the results of any pathology that may have been sent. If you have any concerns about your recovery or the procedure between your colonoscopy and your follow up appointment you can contact your gastroenterologist to let them know.