What Are Colon Polyps?

Colonic polyps, also known as colorectal polyps, are growths that appear on the surface of the colon. The colon, or large intestine, is a long hollow tube at the bottom of the digestive tract. It’s where the body makes and stores stool.

“One of the conditions that we commonly treat is colon polyps,” says David L. Meese, M.D., a board-certified colon and rectal surgeon at the Colon & Rectal Surgery Associates. “Polyps are growths that form in the tissues on the inner lining of the colon. They start as small, benign (harmless) bumps, but as they grow and become larger, they can transform into cancer.”

The actual cause of polyps is not known but may be related to dietary or hereditary factors. Diets high in fiber and low in animal fats reduce the likelihood of colon polyps and cancer.

Which Factors Increase the Risk of Developing Colon Polyps?

A significant factor that influences the development of colon polyps is age. Individuals over the age of 50 have an approximately 40–50% chance of developing a colon polyp. Due to this evidence, the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) and the American Cancer Society recommend that these people be screened for colon polyps. Once a patient who is 50 years or older is found to have a polyp, there are several important factors to determine if that individual is at high risk. Family history being the number one contributing factor.

Approximately half of the patients who have had a colon polyp, which is roughly half of the age 50+ population, will recur with another polyp within three years. Of those patients, around 10% will recur with an advanced polyp or with multiple polyps. Morphologic/pathologic features such as size—a polyp that is greater than 1 cm in diameter—indicate an advanced polyp. Individuals who recur with risky polyps have an elevated risk of developing colon cancer.

Screening Is Key to Prevent Colon Cancer

According to Dr. Meese, proper detection and diagnosis of colon polyps are critical to staving off cancer. “Polyps are important because they have the risk of turning into cancers,” he says. “And if we can identify and remove polyps, we can prevent colon cancer. Polyps are identified during a screening or colonoscopy exam, or at the time of other diagnostic procedures for the colon. And when polyps are discovered, we have technology like the colonoscope that allows us to remove the polyps under most circumstances.”

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the United States, a disease that impacts over 135,000 people per year and causes more than 50,000 deaths. However, if detected early on, colorectal cancer has over a 90% survival rate, which is why colorectal specialists urge all patients over the age of fifty to undergo a colonoscopy exam. Over 90% of patients impacted by colorectal cancer are over 40-years old.

How Are Colon Polyps Diagnosed?

Colon polyps are diagnosed either by looking at the colon lining directly (colonoscopy) or by x-ray study (barium enema).

There are three types of colorectal endoscopy:

  1. rigid sigmoidoscopy
  2. flexible sigmoidoscopy
  3. colonoscopy

A rigid sigmoidoscopy examines the lower six to eight inches of the large intestine. In a flexible sigmoidoscopy, the lower one-fourth to one-third of the colon is examined. Neither rigid nor flexible sigmoidoscopy requires medication and can be performed in the doctor’s office.

A colonoscopy uses a longer flexible instrument and usually permits inspection of the entire colon. During a colonoscopy, a specially-designed flexible device equipped with a light (called a colonoscope) is inserted through the whole length of the colon enabling the physician to analyze the inner surface of the intestine for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

The procedure usually lasts about thirty minutes but may extend if polyps are found and need to be removed. Full sedation is given to promote a painless and successful procedure. Complications from colonoscopy are rare but possible. There is a small chance of bleeding, injury to the bowel wall, or reactions to sedation or bowel preparation.

The colon can also be indirectly examined using the barium enema x-ray technique. This examination uses a barium solution to coat the colon lining. X-rays are taken, and unsuspected polyps are frequently found.

“If we can identify patients that form polyps, and if we can remove their polyps through the course of their lifetime, we can reduce colon cancer risk by approximately 80%,” says Dr. Meese. “This makes colonoscopy and colon polyp removal an important and powerful tool, and again, an important part of our practice.”If you have any questions or would like more information about colon polyps, colonoscopy or colorectal cancer, please contact us or call 386-672-0017.

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