What is a Colonoscope?

This Instrument Is Critically Important In Diagnosing Digestive Disease

Polyp found during a colonoscopy, artwork
SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI/Getty

A colonoscope is a long, thin, flexible tube with a camera and a light on the end. The tube is inserted into the rectum to look at the inside of the large intestine. This tool is used during a common diagnostic and screening procedure called a colonoscopy. A colonoscope could be used to perform a colonoscopy in a hospital or in an endoscopy center. Patients are typically sedated during a colonoscopy so that there is no discomfort or even memory of the procedure.

Pictures from the camera in the colonoscope are displayed on a video screen in the examination room. Still images may also be taken to allow the physician to take a closer examination and to make a comparison to earlier or later colonoscopy images. A colonoscope is used by a specialist physician with years of training, such as a gastroenterologist, a colorectal surgeon, or an endoscopy specialist. Patients with an interest should ask their physician about seeing the images from the test or even the video during the next office visit.

What Is A Colonoscope Used For?

The colonoscope is used to visualize (see) the inside of the colon. When a physician can see the lining of the colon, it can help in the diagnosis of various diseases. Some of the diseases and conditions that could be monitored, verified, or diagnosed with a colonoscope include:

A colonoscope can also be used to look for the source of bleeding, such as if there is bright red blood seen in/on the stool.

How Does A Colonoscope Help Prevent Cancer?

A colonoscope is a sophisticated tool, and not only can it be used to look at the intestine, it can also be used for preventing colon and rectal cancer.

If, during the course of a colonoscopy, a physician sees a polyp growing, the colonoscope can be used to remove it. A polyp is a growth on the inside of the intestine that is believed to be the precursor to cancer. There is a part of the colonoscope--a wire loop--that looks like a lasso. It can be looped around the polyp at the base and through the application of heat, the polyp is removed. There is not any pain or discomfort from polyp removal.

Once the polyp is removed, it has no chance of turning cancerous and causing colon cancer. A polyp that is removed may be sent for biopsy to check for cancer cells. In some cases, the physician conducting the colonoscopy may also use the colonoscope to "tattoo" the inside of the colon. This endoscopic tattooing can help if later a polyp was found to be cancerous, and the physician needs to find the location where it was removed.

The Importance of Biopsies

Biopsies are also typically taking during a colonoscopy with the use of the colonoscope. A biopsy is a small piece of tissue that is taken from the large intestine. This tissue is sent to a pathologist where it can be examined very closely and tested for various diseases. During a colonoscopy, a colonoscope will be used to take several biopsies from different parts of the colon.

It's important to have several biopsies to compare them and to see exactly what parts of the colon may be inflamed or affected by disease. 

Are There Risks?

No procedure is without risks, but the risks from colonoscopy with a colonoscope are very minimal. In fact, the lifetime baseline risk for developing colon cancer is higher than the risks associated with getting a colonoscopy. With this perspective, it's understandable why a colonoscopy is recommended for everyone over the age of 50, and earlier for those at an increased risk for colon cancer.  

A Word From Verywell

A colonoscope is an important tool for not only diagnosing digestive disease, but also for preventing colon cancer.

While the idea of getting a colonoscopy can make some people cringe, it is an important test that has the ability to save lives by preventing colon cancer. 

Pronunciation: kō-lon′ō-skōp

Also Known As: Endoscope

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