What Is an Endoscopy?

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Your doctor has told you that you need to have an endoscopy to help diagnose a medical condition or determine the cause of symptoms you've been having. But what exactly is an endoscopy, and what can it tell you (and not tell you) about your health and possible diagnosis?

What Exactly Is an Endoscopy?

Put simply, an endoscopy is a diagnostic test that gives your medical team a chance to take a look at your digestive tract via a small camera mounted on a tube and to take tissue samples with surgical tools passed down through the tube.

In the case of an upper endoscopy, the camera and tube are inserted into your mouth and down your esophagus toward your stomach. In a lower endoscopy — more commonly called a colonoscopy — the tube and camera are inserted in your anus and threaded upward through your large intestine.

It's also possible to use endoscopic instruments to examine your urethra and bladder — in this case, it's called cystoscopy. Various other medical specialists use endoscopic instruments to diagnose conditions outside your digestive tract, as well: for example, they might use an arthroscope (joints), a bronchoscope (windpipe and lungs), and a hysteroscope (uterus).

What Is Endoscopy Used For?

In most cases, when your doctor says you need an endoscopy, she's referring to an upper endoscopy, which will allow her to get a close look at your upper digestive system, including your mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach, all the way down to the beginning of your small intestine.

An endoscopy may be recommended to help determine the cause of a variety of different symptoms, including heartburn, pain, nausea, vomiting, problems swallowing and unexplained weight loss.

Conditions that may be diagnosed through the use of an endoscopy include ulcers, anemia, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), cancer and celiac disease.

The procedure also will give your physician an opportunity to snip off tiny pieces of tissue so that they can be examined under a microscope. This will provide more clues to your diagnosis.

What to Expect from Your Endoscopy

Many people are worried beforehand that their endoscopy will be painful or uncomfortable ... but are pleasantly surprised to find it's not that bad. The procedure generally is performed at a hospital or at an outpatient surgical center.

Your doctor will tell you not to eat or drink beforehand. You may be given a sedative to make you more comfortable and relaxed, and a spray in your throat to numb that area, but most people are not anesthetized for the procedure. Believe it or not, though, you may fall asleep if you were given a sedative beforehand.

The procedure itself is pretty short — it takes only about 30 minutes. You won't feel it if your doctor snips off any polyps or tissue samples, but you may feel some fullness (this comes from the air that's pumped into your digestive tract through the endoscope, which helps your medical team see everything better).

You'll probably want to take the day off work, and you may need someone to drive you home (check with your doctor about specific requirements for your situation). You may also have a sore throat for a day or two afterward.

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Article Sources

  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Upper GI Endoscopy fact sheet. Accessed Jan. 9, 2016.
  • National Institutes of Health. Gastroscopy (Upper Endoscopy) fact sheet. Accessed Jan. 9, 2016.
  • U.S. Library of Medicine. Endoscopy fact sheet. Accessed Jan. 9, 2016.