What Is Endoscopy?

A Procedure Used to Examine the Inside of the Body

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An endoscopy is a procedure that allows your doctor to examine the body’s internal organs by inserting a medical tool through a natural opening in the body or through a small incision. The instrument used—called an endoscope—is a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera, light, and sometimes a surgical tool attached to it.

The camera transmits back a picture onto a screen in the exam room, giving your doctor a first-hand look at what’s going on inside the body.

Endoscopy

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Definition

There are many different types of endoscopy used to evaluate the joints, chest, abdomen, or colon. The procedure is commonly used to help with diagnosis and treatment planning.

It can also be used as an intervention. In those cases, tools can be attached to the endoscope to take tissue samples, remove small tumors or stuck pieces of debris, stop internal bleeding, or stretch narrow areas.

Because endoscopic procedures usually don’t involve extensive surgery, and can often be done quickly and without general anesthesia, many experts agree that they’re less risky than traditional surgical procedures. In fact, they’ve become so common that it’s estimated tens of millions of endoscopies take place each year.

Conditions Treated

Some of the more frequently performed endoscopies are the upper gastrointestinal (GI) for stomach-related issues and colonoscopy for colon cancer screening—both performed by a gastroenterologist, since their expertise is with the digestive system.

During the upper endoscopy, your doctor is able to look at the esophagus, stomach, and the initial segment of the small intestines for further analysis, perhaps to assess symptoms like upper abdominal pain, find the source of suspected internal bleeding, or look for tumors. For this type of endoscopy, the endoscope is usually inserted through the mouth and down into the abdomen.

Colonoscopies are commonly used to detect and monitor any changes or abnormalities in the large intestine (colon). In this instance, the endoscope would be inserted through the anus. Colonoscopies are typically used as a recommended screening tool for people in older age groups or with certain risk factors for colon cancer. 

Some of the other types of endoscopies include: 

  • Arthroscopy: This procedure is used to diagnose and treat certain joint conditions, like different types of arthritis or painful knee or wrist issues. The endoscope is inserted through a tiny incision made in the skin, allowing the doctor to directly access the joint in question.
  • Bronchoscopy: This procedure may be used in diagnosing (and sometimes treating) lung disease. In this instance, the endoscope is inserted through the mouth and down into the airways of the lungs.
  • Cystoscopy: This procedure is used to identify any abnormalities, bleeding, or blockages in the bladder. A doctor will insert the endoscope through the urethra, which is the body part leading up to the bladder.

Your doctor will decide which type of endoscopy is the right option for you if they need to investigate, confirm, or treat a suspected condition in a specific location. For example, if you’re experiencing unexplained symptoms like abdominal pain, vomiting, or trouble breathing or swallowing, your doctor may decide to use an endoscope to get to the root of the issue.

Likewise, if there’s concern that you may have a disease like cancer, your doctor may be able to utilize endoscopy for a biopsy. Or, an endoscopy can treat a condition directly by removing a polyp or fixing a joint issue. 

Process

After your doctor determines that you’re a candidate for an endoscopy, the exact procedure will vary a bit based on the type of the endoscopy you’re getting and the reason for it. But typically, you can expect a similar process for most endoscopies.

Location

Endoscopies are performed in a doctor’s office, an outpatient medical center, or sometimes a hospital. Your doctor will likely choose the location based at least partly on whether you may have an underlying medical condition that could require special attention.

Preparation

Your doctor will provide exact instructions to follow for at least the day leading up to the procedure. Most patients are advised to refrain from eating or drinking for around 12 hours before surgery. That’s because food or liquids present in the body could interfere with the endoscope’s view.

Be sure to ask your doctor about whether and how to take any necessary daily medications ahead of the procedure, as some could interact with the medicine used during the procedure, or might delay healing after the procedure is performed.

If you’re getting a colonoscopy, you should expect to get a prescription-strength laxative that will completely clear out your bowels (you’ll be in the bathroom a lot) so the doctor can get an unobstructed view of the intestines.

Procedure

After arriving at the medical center, you’ll be given sedation medications through an IV that will help you feel relaxed and drowsy during the procedure. Because of this, you’ll need to have someone to drive you home afterward, and you should probably clear your schedule for the rest of the day and get any assistance needed for childcare or household duties. 

Recovery

The procedure itself can take as little as 15-20 minutes for some types of endoscopies. When it’s over, you may feel groggy for several hours (thanks to the sedative medication) and can rest in a recovery area until the medicine has mostly worn off.

You’ll get some after-care instructions from your doctor on how and when to resume eating, drinking, and regular activities. Some people feel no symptoms after the procedure, while others may feel sore or bloated and need to rest.

Full recovery will depend on the type of endoscopy, but shouldn’t take more than a few days. Your doctor should be able to share results from your endoscopy in several days, if not sooner.

Risks

Most endoscopic procedures are generally safe, and  rarely have serious complications, but you should know that any medicine procedure carries risk — whether it’s infection from being in the medical setting, or something that happens during or after the procedure.

Typically, complications from most endoscopies are mild. If anything, any small complications would be noticed during the procedure or within a few days, and your medical team would be able to address them quickly.

Serious complications are less common, but they could include a tear of your inner intestinal lining, causing bleeding, or perforation of bowel. And anytime anesthesia is involved, there’s a potential for risks or adverse effects to occur. Be sure to discuss your medical history and any specific concerns with your doctor ahead of the procedure.

Emergency After Care

If you have any lingering discomfort or if your pain gets worse after the endoscopy, it’s probably a good idea to call your doctor. Get emergency medical attention if you develop any unusual or severe conditions, like pain, bleeding, or vomiting blood.

A Word From Verywell

If it makes you feel more comfortable, remember that you’re not alone in getting or considering getting an endoscopy. It’s estimated that around 75 million of them are performed each year in the U.S., according to federal data. The most common? GI endoscopies, making up 68% of all endoscopies in the U.S. A whopping 19 million of them are colonoscopies.  

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