What is a Colon Polyp?
There are several types of polyps—including those in the ovaries, nasal passage and throat—but a colon polyp is a cellular growth on the inner wall of the colon or large intestine. Colon cancer often starts out as one of these small polyps. It is normal to have several polyps at the same time, since they are generally caused by a genetic error that affects the natural repair process of cells making up the lining of the colon. Nonetheless, as with any abnormal growth found in the body, colon polyps have the potential to become cancerous if not monitored or simply removed to prevent complications.
Polyps that are harmless are referred to as hyperplastic polyps. Hyperplastic polyps are very common, but it’s difficult to distinguish them from pre-cancerous, or adenomatous, polyps. Adenomatous polyps take a long time, usually years, to turn into colon cancer—but their presence in the colon is a strong indicator that a patient might have or will develop colon cancer. Generally, bigger polyps are more likely to be dangerous than smaller ones.
Colon polyps are more common in people older than 50 years old. Colonoscopy specialists recommend regular colon cancer screenings after this age, especially for patients who have a history of colon cancer in their family’s medical history or have developed polyps in other parts of their bodies. If you’ve had polyps in your colon before, your chance of developing others there also increases. Talk to one of our specialists if you feel that you need follow-up testing.
What are Common Colon Polyp Symptoms?
Unfortunately, there are very few symptoms of colon polyps detectable without a colon screening test. Doctors usually find them during procedures such as colonoscopy. Larger polyps can also be seen during a CT scan of the abdomen. In some cases, however, an especially large or troublesome polyp might cause bleeding from the rectum or changes in a patient’s bowel movements. If you find yourself needing to use the restroom more or less often than usually, or if you experience diarrhea or constipation, you may want to contact an expert to find out if you have colon polyps. Also talk to someone if there is blood or discoloration in your stool, as blood in the stool is a sign of bleeding along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Polyp Removal to Prevent Colon Cancer
If your doctor finds a polyp, there’s no need to panic. A colorectal polyp is not always cancerous. In fact, most remain benign, or harmless, and are removed before they pose serious risks to the patient. During a polypectomy (or a polyp removal), a doctor will access the patient’s colon using a long, flexible instrument called an endoscope or colonscope. If the detected polyp is small enough, a cutting device can be inserted through to cut away tissue immediately. In cases where the polyp to too large to do this, a circular wire tool called a noose or a snare is inserted. The doctor will then loop the wire around the large polyp and squeeze it until it burns off during a process called cauterization. The process resembles a very small amputation, or a polyp biopsy, as the cautery method helps remove tissue and prevent post-procedural bleeding. There are no nerve sensors within the colon, so the polypectomy itself is a virtually painless process. Nonetheless, patients are still required to be sedated in order for the colonoscope or endoscope to be inserted.
Reviewed 12/12/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014