Sigmoidoscopy is a procedure by which a doctor inserts either a short and rigid or slightly longer and flexible fiber-optic tube into the rectum to examine the lower portion of the large intestine (or bowel).
Sigmoidoscopy is used most often in screening for colorectal cancer or to determine the cause of rectal bleeding.
Cancer of the rectum and colon is the second most common cancer in the United States, and claims the lives of approximately 60, 000 people annually. As a result, cancer authorities now recommend that people over 50 be screened for colorectal cancer every three to five years. Screening at an earlier age should be done on patients who have a family history of colon or rectal cancer, or small growths in the colon (polyps).
Individuals with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's colitis or ulcerative colitis) are at increased risk for colorectal cancer and should begin their screenings at a younger age, and be screened more frequently. Many doctors screen such patients more often than every three to five years. Those with ulcerative colitis should be screened beginning 10 years after the onset of disease; those with Crohn's colitis beginning 15 years after the onset of disease.
Some doctors prefer to do this screening with a colonoscope, which allows them to see the entire colon (certain patients, such as those with Crohn's colitis or ulcerative colitis, must be screened with a colonoscope). However, compared with sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy is a longer process, causes more discomfort, and is more costly.
Studies have indicated that about one quarter of all precancerous or small cancerous growths in the colorectal region can be seen with a rigid sigmoidoscope. The longer, flexible version, which is the primary type of sigmoidoscope used in the screening process, can detect more than half of all growths in this region. This examination is usually performed in combination with a fecal occult blood test, in an effort to increase detection of polyps and cancers that lie beyond the scope's reach.
Sigmoidoscopy can usually be conducted in a doctor's office or a health clinic. However, some individuals should have the procedure done in a hospital day surgery facility. These include patients with rectal bleeding, and patients whose blood does not clot well (possibly as a result of blood-thinning medications).
Most sigmoidoscopy is done with a flexible fiber-optic tube. The tube contains a light source and a camera
The procedure takes 20 to 30 minutes, during which time the patient will remain awake. Light sedation may be given to some patients. There is some discomfort (usually bloating and cramping) because air is injected into the bowel to widen the passage for the sigmoido-scope. Pain is rare except in individuals with active inflammatory bowel disease.
In a colorectal cancer screening, the doctor is looking for polyps or tumors. Studies have shown that over time, many polyps develop into cancerous lesions and tumors. Using instruments threaded through the fiber-optic tube, cancerous or precancerous polyps can either be removed or biopsied during the sigmoidoscopy. People who have cancerous polyps removed can be referred for full colonoscopy, or more frequent sigmoidoscopy, as necessary.
The doctor may also look for signs of ulcerative colitis, which include a loss of blood flow to the lining the bowel, a thickening of the lining, and sometimes a discharge of blood and pus mixed with stool. The doctor can also look for Crohn's disease, which often appears as shallow or deep ulcerations, or erosions and fissures in the lining of the colon. In many cases, these signs appear in the first few centimeters of the colon above the rectum, and it is not necessary to do a full colonoscopic exam.
Private insurance plans often cover the cost of sigmoidoscopy for screening in healthy individuals over 50, or for diagnostic purposes. Medicare covers the cost for diagnostic exams, and may cover the costs for screening exams.
The purpose of preparation for sigmoidoscopy is to clean the lower bowel of stool so that the doctor can see the lining. Many patients are required to consume only clear liquids on the day before the test, and to take two enemas on the morning of the procedure. The bowel is cleaner, however, if patients also take an oral laxative preparation of 1.5 oz phospho-soda the evening before the sigmoidoscopy.
Certain medications should be avoided for a week before having a sigmoidoscopy. These include:
- aspirin, or products containing aspirin
- ibuprofin products (Nuprin, Advil, or Motrin)
- iron or vitamins containing iron
Although most prescription medication can be taken as usual, patients should check with their doctor in advance.
Patients may feel mild cramping after the procedure that will improve after passing gas. Patients can resume their normal activities almost immediately.
There is a slight risk of bleeding from the procedure. This risk is heightened in individuals whose blood does not clot well, either due to disease or medication, and in those with active inflammatory bowel disease. The most serious complication of sigmoidoscopy is bowel perforation (tear). This complication is very rare, however, occurring only about once in every 7, 500 procedures.
For a cancer screening sigmoidoscopy, an abnormal result involves one or more noncancerous or precancerous polyps or tumors. Patients showing polyps have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer in the future.
Small polyps can be completely removed. Larger polyps or tumors usually require the doctor to remove a portion of the growth for diagnostic testing. Depending on the test results, the patient is then scheduled to have the growth removed surgically, either as an urgent matter if it is cancerous, or as an elective surgery within a few months if it is noncancerous.
In a diagnostic sigmoidoscopy, an abnormal result shows signs of active inflammatory bowel disease, either a thickening of the intestinal lining consistent with ulcerative colitis, or ulcerations or fissures consistent with Crohn's disease.
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Jon H. Zonderman
—A procedure where a piece of tissue is removed from a patient for diagnostic testing.
—Cancer of the large intestine, or colon, and the rectum (the last 16 in of the large intestine before the anus).
Inflammatory bowel disease
—Ulcerative colitis or Crohn's colitis; chronic conditions characterized by periods of diarrhea, bloating, abdominal cramps, and pain, sometimes accompanied by weight loss and malnutrition because of the inability to absorb nutrients.
—A small growth that can be precancerous when it appears in the colon.