What Is A Virtual Colonoscopy & How Long Does This Procedure Take?

What is a Virtual Colonoscopy?

Also given the name of computed tomography or CT colonography, Virtual Colonoscopy is an imaging procedure, which takes images of the inner portions of a patient’s colon and rectum. Virtual colonoscopy is mostly used by physicians to identify any polyps or small benign growths, and also detect presence of any colon or rectal malignancy.

What is a Virtual Colonoscopy?

What is the Difference Between Virtual Colonoscopy and Regular Colonoscopy?

In a regular colonoscopy, a thin and flexible tube is slid into the rectum for helping the doctor see inside the colon. The patient stays asleep during the process. The light and camera at the end of the tube is used to observe the lining of the intestine. If polyps or changes in the tissue are seen, the doctor can take some out through the tube (biopsy) and check it for cancer. However in virtual colonoscopy, there is no camera inserted into the intestine and nor is the patient asleep during the test. A CT scanner and x-rays are instead used by the doctor to generate 3-D pictures of the patient’s intestine on a computer screen.

How Should One Prepare For A Virtual Colonoscopy?

The prep for virtual colonoscopy is same as that in regular colonoscopy. The patient would need to change what they eat for some days and take medicines to clean their colon. Patients undergoing virtual colonoscopy would need to drink a special contrast liquid before the test. This liquid lines the inside of the intestine and makes it easier to see on the scans generated from virtual colonoscopy. The patient before undergoing the virtual colonoscopy test must let their doctor know about all the medicines they are taking. This includes prescription drugs like vitamins, supplements, and herbs. The patient may be asked to stop some of these for a short time before the virtual colonoscopy test. Ones who have suffered from a reaction to contrast liquid normally used for x-rays, in the past should inform their physicians about it before embarking for a virtual colonoscopy. Pregnant women should never get a virtual colonoscopy done.

What Happens in Virtual Colonoscopy and How Long Does This Procedure Take?

Virtual colonoscopy is done by trained technicians and is an outpatient procedure. During the test, the patient would be asked to first lie sideways on a narrow table while a short, thin tube would be put into their rectum to fill their intestine with air. This is done to help the intestine expand and smoothen out, and the patient’s belly feels full but without any pain. Once the stomach is filled with air, the table is then slipped into a ring like structure which has the shape of a doughnut. The person in charge of the machine then leaves the room but can hear, see, and talk with the patient throughout the duration of the examination. The patient may be asked to turn or hold their breath at different times. The machine can click and whir as the scans are done. The entire procedure of virtual colonoscopy would take about 10 to 15 minutes.

What Happens Post Virtual Colonoscopy?

Post virtual colonoscopy, some patients can feel bloated for a while and have gas as they pass the air out of their intestine. The patient can resume their normal diet and their normal activities after a virtual colonoscopy.

What are the Pros and Cons of Virtual Colonoscopy?

Virtual colonoscopy has its pros and cons. Compared to traditional colonoscopy, virtual colonoscopy is less invasive, is performed faster, and does not require conscious sedation. Virtual colonoscopy is also cheaper and is less risky than regular colonoscopy. Virtual colonoscopy is easier for elderly and people who take blood thinners. There is no recovery time for virtual colonoscopy and the patient can resume their normal activities immediately after this test.

However, there are certain drawbacks of virtual colonoscopy. Even though the procedure is less invasive when compared to a regular colonoscopy, virtual colonoscopy does require air to be filled in the colon which can lead to discomfort in some patients. But if the patient was under adequate conscious sedation, like in regular colonoscopy, the patient would experience little or no discomfort at all. Another drawback of virtual colonoscopy is that it is not as reliable as regular colonoscopy in detecting small polyps.

Despite majority of physicians being of the opinion that a polyp which measures less than 5 mm normally are benign in most cases, some of these growths can become malignant with time if they are not removed in their entirety. Coming to detection of malignant polyps, virtual colonoscopy fails to do so and moreover this is a diagnostic test and no polyps are removed by doing this. If polyps are detected by virtual colonoscopy, traditional colonoscopy would then need to be performed to remove the polyps. So, many people who have virtual colonoscopy would need to undergo a second procedure. Despite the radiation to which an individual is exposed to with this procedure is considered to be safe, what effect does it have in the long term is still a matter of investigation. Another thing is that virtual colonoscopy is not always covered by insurance.

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