Virtual Colonoscopy

Virtual colonoscopy (VC) is an imaging or x-ray test that looks for cancer, polyps, or other disease in the large intestine (colon).

How the Test is Performed

A virtual colonoscopy is different from a regular colonoscopy, in which a long, lighted tool called a colonoscope is inserted into the rectum and large intestine.

The test is performed in the radiology department of a hospital or medical center. No sedatives are needed and no scope is used.

You will lie on your left side on a narrow table that is connected to an MRI or CT scan machine.

  • Your knees will be up toward your chest. A small, flexible tube will be inserted into your rectum. Air is pumped through the tube to make the colon bigger and easier to see.
  • After this is done, you’ll be asked to lie on your back.
  • Next, the table slides into a large tunnel through the machine, where x-rays create images of your colon.
  • You must stay very still during this procedure, since movement can blur the pictures. You may be asked to hold your breath briefly while each picture is taken.

A computer combines all the images to form three-dimensional pictures of the colon, which are viewed on a video monitor.

Pictures are also taken while you lie on your stomach.

The exam takes about 20 minutes.

How to Prepare for the Test

Everyone undergoing any type of colonoscopy must completely empty their bowels before the exam. This may be done using an enema or laxatives combined with a liquid diet the day before the test. The bowel must be completely emptied until no solid matter remains.

Unfortunately, diarrhea is common during preparation. Drink plenty of clear liquids, such as apple juice and chicken broth, to avoid dehydration.

Make sure you tell your health care provider about any medications you are taking. You’ll be told which you can take, and which you should temporarily stop. CT and MRI scanners are very sensitive to metals. Don’t wear jewelry the day of your exam. You’ll be asked to wear a hospital gown for the procedure.

How the Test Will Feel

The x-rays are painless. Pumping air into the colon can create cramping or gas pains.

Why the Test is Performed

Virtual colonoscopy may be performed to:

  • Follow-up on colon cancer or polyps
  • Look for the cause of:
    • Abdominal pain, changes in bowel movements, or weight loss
    • Anemia due to low iron
    • Blood in the stool or black, tarry stools
  • Screen for cancer of the colon or rectum (should be done every 5 years)

Your doctor may want to do a conventional colonoscopy instead of a virtual colonoscopy. The reason is that virtual colonoscopy does not allow the doctor to remove tissue samples or polyps.

A regular colonoscopy may be done (on a different day) after a virtual colonoscopy if:

  • No cause for bleeding or other symptoms were found. Virtual colonoscopy can miss some smaller problems in the colon.
  • Problems that need a biopsy were seen on a virtual colonoscopy

Other times, a virtual colonoscopy is done if your doctor was not able to move the flexible tube all the way through the colon during a conventional colonoscopy.

Normal Results

Normal findings are images of a healthy intestinal tract.

What Abnormal Results Mean

  • Colorectal cancer
  • Diverticulosis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Lower gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding
  • Polyps
  • Tumor

Risks

  • Radiation exposure
  • The medications to prepare for the test can cause nausea, vomiting, bloating, or rectal irritation.

Considerations

Differences between virtual and conventional colonoscopy include:

  • Virtual colonoscopy can view the colon from many different angles. This is not as easy with conventional colonoscopy.
  • Virtual colonoscopy uses no sedation, and patients are usually able to go back to their normal activities right away after the test. Conventional colonoscopy involves sedation, and usually the loss of a work day.

Virtual colonoscopy is now one of the American Cancer Society’s recommended screening tools for colon cancer.