How Do I Know If I Have Colorectal Polyps?

Colorectal polyps are small clumps of cells that form on the inner lining of the colon. These polyps are very common in the average population, especially among people over the age of 50. Fortunately, most colorectal polyps do not cause symptoms and are harmless, however, a small percentage of them can develop into colon cancer and become very serious. Treatment for colorectal polyps is simple and often performed during a basic in-office test or screening.

For this reason, since most polyps do not develop into cancer, tests and imaging procedures are the best way to find out if you have polyps. 

Tests & Screenings for Colorectal Polyps

The three most common tests used to find polyps are the sigmoidoscopy, standard colonoscopy, and virtual colonoscopy. Physicians often recommend having these screening tests done regularly after the age of 50.

Sigmoidoscopy: This test examines the sigmoid colon and rectum using a sigmoidoscope. A sigmoidoscope is an instrument made up of a flexible lighted tube, a lens for viewing, and a tool for removing tissue. This instrument expands the colon and allows the physician to get a better look at any polyps in the colon lining; it also allows for the physician to biopsy any polyps they find.

Standard Colonoscopy: This test is perhaps the most common polyp screening procedure. Studies have shown that colonoscopies reduce deaths from colorectal cancer by between 60 and 70%. The test works like a sigmoidoscopy, except it can examine a longer area of the patient’s GI tract. It can detect and biopsy polyps in the upper colon that sigmoidoscopes can’t reach.

Virtual Colonoscopy: This test is less common than a standard colonoscopy, but it is less invasive, as it is performed completely outside of the body. A virtual colonoscopy uses a combination of x-rays and computer software to create images of a patient’s colon. This test is basically a CT scan of the lower GI tract. After the image is created, the physician can then see any polyps or abnormalities, however, if abnormalities are detected, the patient usually has to undergo a standard colonoscopy in order to have the polyps biopsied.

Types of Colorectal Polyps

There are three general types of colorectal polyps:

Adenomatous: About two-thirds of all polyps are adenomatous, but only a small percentage of them actually become colorectal cancer.

Serrated: The risk for cancer of these polyps depends on their size and location. Small serrated polyps in the lower colon are rarely malignant, however, large, flat serrated polyps in the upper colon are difficult to detect, and they are considered precancerous.

Inflammatory: These polyps usually follow a flare-up from ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Although these polyps themselves are not a significant threat, the presence of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s does increase your risk for developing cancer.

Risk Factors for Colorectal Polyps:

Patients are typically screened every ten years after the age of 50, however, if you display certain risk factors, then your physician may recommend starting screening at an earlier age and having the tests done more frequently.

Some of these risk factors include older age, being overweight, smoking, bad diet, inflammatory intestinal conditions, race, presence of type II diabetes, and personal or family history. There are also some relatively rare hereditary diseases that may cause an increased risk of polyps.

According to Dr. Francisco Itriago “some studies have shown that red meat cooked over an open flame can contribute to the development of polyps that can then possibly turn cancerous.” Watching your diet can be one of the easiest ways to prevent colorectal polyps.

Other Information

You should speak with a colorectal specialist if you display symptoms, have risk factors, or have never been screened for polyps after the age of 50. They will be able to run tests and determine what the next course of action should be. Polyps are typically nothing to worry about, but the best way to be put at ease is to have a doctor view these polyps through a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy and make sure they are benign.