• <div class="section1"> Definition

    Sigmoidoscopy is a procedure by which a doctor inserts either a short and rigid or slightly longer and flexible fiber-optic tube into the rectum to examine the lower portion of the large intestine (or bowel).


    Sigmoidoscopy is used most often in screening for colorectal cancer or to determine the cause of rectal bleeding. It is also used for the diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease and other benign diseases of the lower intestine.

    Cancer of the rectum and colon is the second most common cancer in the United States, and claims the lives of approximately 56,000 people annually. As a result, The American Cancer Society recommends that people age 50 and over be screened for colorectal cancer every five years. The screening includes a flexible sigmoidoscopy. Screening at an earlier age should be done on patients who have a family history of colon or rectal cancer, or small growths in the colon (polyps).

    Individuals with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's colitis or ulcerative colitis) are at increased risk for colorectal cancer and should begin their screenings at a younger age, and be screened more frequently. Many doctors screen such patients more often than every three to five years. Those with ulcerative colitis should be screened beginning 10 years after the onset of disease; those with Crohn's colitis beginning 15 years after the onset of disease.

    Some doctors prefer to do this screening with a colonoscope, which allows them to see the entire colon (certain patients, such as those with Crohn's colitis or ulcerative colitis, must be screened with a colonoscope). However, compared with sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy is a longer process, causes more discomfort, and is more costly.

    Studies have indicated that about one-fourth of all precancerous or small cancerous growths in the colorectal region can be seen with a rigid sigmoidoscope. The longer, flexible version, which is the primary type of sigmoidoscope used in the screening process, can detect more than one-half of all growths in this region. This examination is usually performed in combination with a fecal occult blood test, in an effort to increase detection of polyps and cancers that lie beyond the scope's reach.


    Sigmoidoscopy can usually be conducted in a doctor's office or a health clinic. However, some individuals should have the procedure done in a hospital day surgery facility. These include patients with rectal bleeding, and patients whose blood does not clot well (possibly as a result of blood-thinning medications).

    The exam is not always adequate. A 2004 study reported that among older patients and women, sigmoidoscopy is not always effective, particularly because insertion depth is not adequate. For unknown reasons, this is almost twice as true for women as for men.


    Most sigmoidoscopy is done with a flexible fiber-optic tube. The tube contains a light source and a camera lens. The doctor moves the sigmoidoscope up beyond the rectum (the first 1 ft/30 cm of the colon), examining the interior walls of the rectum. If a 2 ft/60 cm scope is used, the next portion of the colon can also be examined for any irregularities.

    The procedure takes 20 to 30 minutes, during which time the patient will remain awake. Light sedation may be given to some patients. There is some discomfort (usually bloating and cramping) because air is injected into the bowel to widen the passage for the sigmoidoscope. Pain is rare except in individuals with active inflammatory bowel disease.

    In a colorectal cancer screening, the doctor is looking for polyps or tumors. Studies have shown that over time, many polyps develop into cancerous lesions and tumors. Using instruments threaded through the fiber-optic tube, cancerous or precancerous polyps can either be removed or biopsied during the sigmoidoscopy. People who have cancerous polyps removed can be referred for full colonoscopy, or more frequent sigmoidoscopy, as necessary.

    The doctor may also look for signs of ulcerative colitis, which include a loss of blood flow to the lining of the bowel, a thickening of the lining, and sometimes a discharge of blood and pus mixed with stool. The doctor can also look for Crohn's disease, which often appears as shallow or deep ulcerations, or erosions and fissures in the lining of the colon. In many cases, these signs appear in the first few centimeters of the colon above the rectum, and it is not necessary to do a full colonoscopic exam.

    Private insurance plans often cover the cost of sigmoidoscopy for screening in healthy individuals over 50, or for diagnostic purposes. Medicare covers the cost for diagnostic exams, and may cover the costs for screening exams.


    The purpose of preparation for sigmoidoscopy is to clean the lower bowel of stool so that the doctor can see the lining. Many patients are required to consume only clear liquids on the day before the test, and to take two enemas on the morning of the procedure. The bowel is cleaner, however, if patients also take an oral laxative preparation of 1.5 oz phospho-soda the evening before the sigmoidoscopy.

    Certain medications should be avoided for a week before having a sigmoidoscopy. These include:

    • aspirin, or products containing aspirin
    • ibuprofen products (Nuprin, Advil, or Motrin)
    • iron or vitamins containing iron
    Although most prescription medication can be taken as usual, patients should check with their doctor in advance.


    Patients may feel mild cramping after the procedure that will improve after passing gas. Patients can resume their normal activities almost immediately.


    There is a slight risk of bleeding from the procedure. This risk is heightened in individuals whose blood does not clot well, either due to disease or medication, and in those with active inflammatory bowel disease. The most serious complication of sigmoidoscopy is bowel perforation (tear). This complication is very rare, however, occurring only about once in every 7,500 procedures.

    Normal results

    A normal exam shows a smooth bowel wall with no evidence of inflammation, polyps or tumors.

    Abnormal results

    For a cancer screening sigmoidoscopy, an abnormal result involves one or more noncancerous or precancerous polyps or tumors. Patients showing polyps have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer in the future.

    Small polyps can be completely removed. Larger polyps or tumors usually require the doctor to remove a portion of the growth for diagnostic testing. Depending on the test results, the patient is then scheduled to have the growth removed surgically, either as an urgent matter if it is cancerous, or as an elective surgery within a few months if it is noncancerous.

    In a diagnostic sigmoidoscopy, an abnormal result shows signs of active inflammatory bowel disease, either a thickening of the intestinal lining consistent with ulcerative colitis, or ulcerations or fissures consistent with Crohn's disease.

    Source: The Gale Group. Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.

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