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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 fiberoptic 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
Sigmoidoscopy is a procedure most often used in screening for colorectal cancer and as a test in diagnosis of possible inflammatory bowel disease. As illustrated above, the physician can view the rectum and colon through a sigmoidoscope, a 12 inch (30 cm) or 24 inch (60 cm) flexible fiber-optic tube which contains a light source and a lens.
Sigmoidoscopy is a procedure most often used in screening for colorectal cancer and as a test in diagnosis of possible inflammatory bowel disease. As illustrated above, the physician can view the rectum and colon through a sigmoidoscope, a 12 inch (30 cm) or 24 inch (60 cm) flexible fiber-optic tube which contains a light source and a lens.
(Illustration by Electronic Illustrators Group.)
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.
Sigmoidoscopy is a procedure most often used in screening for colorectal cancer and as a test in diagnosis of possible inflammatory bowel disease. As illustrated above, the physician can view the rectum and colon through a sigmoidoscope, a 12 inch (30 cm) or 24 inch (60 cm) flexible fiber-optic tube which contains a light source and a lens.



Johnson, Brett Andrew. "Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: Screening for Colorectal Cancer." American Family Physician March 15, 1999: 1537-46.
Manoucheri, Manoucher, et al. "Bowel Preparations for Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: Which Method Yields the Best Results?" The Journal of Family Practice 48, no. 4 (April, 1999): 272-4.
"Women are Twice as Likely as Men to Have an Inadequate Signoidoscopy Examination." Doctor February 5, 2004: 13.


"Diagnostic Tests." The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing house (National Institutes of Health). July 5, 2001.
"Overview: Colon and Rectum Cancer." The American Cancer Society. Jan. 20, 2005.

Key terms

Biopsy — A procedure where a piece of tissue is removed from a patient for diagnostic testing.
Colorectal cancer — Cancer of the large intestine, or colon, including the rectum (the last 16 in of the large intestine before the anus).
Inflammatory bowel disease — Ulcerative colitis or Crohn's colitis; chronic conditions characterized by periods of diarrhea, bloating, abdominal cramps, and pain, sometimes accompanied by weight loss and malnutrition because of the inability to absorb nutrients.
Polyp — A small growth that can be precancerous when it appears in the colon.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


direct examination of the interior of the sigmoid colon.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Inspection, through an endoscope, of the interior of the sigmoid colon.
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


Gastroenterology A test in which a flexible sigmoidoscope is inserted per rectum and colonic mucosa visualized to detect lesions which, if present, are biopsied to determine whether they are benign or malignant See Endoscopy, Proctoscopy. Cf Barium enema, Fecal occult blood test.
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Inspection, through an endoscope, of the interior of the sigmoid colon.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


A method of direct, visual examination of the inside of the rectum and lower colon using either a straight metal tube or a fibre optic ENDOSCOPE. In either event the instrument used is called a sigmoidoscope.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
This study was the first trial with a follow-up time as long as 17 years, which showed the protective effect of one flexible sigmoidoscopy. The other strength was that this trial collected the data from national datasets resulting with a very little loss to follow-up the patients, even though some of them migrated in the UK.
Sigmoidoscopy in diagnosis: Sigmoidoscopy helps establish the diagnosis of SV.
Systematic review and meta-analysis of the evidence for flexible sigmoidoscopy as a screening method for the prevention of colorectal cancer.
Major Finding: The use of flexible sigmoidoscopy for colorectal cancer screening, as compared with usual care, was associated with a 26% reduction in overall colorectal cancer mortality and a 21% reduction in the incidence of colorectal cancer.
In this paper, we assess empirically whether managed care prevalence seemed to have had any influence over the diffusion of colonoscopy relative to sigmoidoscopy among fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare beneficiaries following Medicare coverage expansion in 2001.
Under the English scheme, all men and women will receive an invitation for flexible sigmoidoscopy, when they turn 55.
Thus, MCS results have been able to highlight a trend toward increasing use of colonoscopy in recent years, with corresponding declines in testing with FOBT and sigmoidoscopy.
In 19 of these states, the laws generally applied to insurance sold to small employers and individuals, and required coverage of all four tests--FOBT, flexible sigmoidoscopy, DCBE, and colonoscopy.
This study validates the use of the AccuTouch Endoscopy Simulator with Flexible Sigmoidoscopy module in reducing the number of patient-based procedures required to achieve competency in performing flexible sigmoidoscopy.
Have an annual fetal occult blood test and a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years beginning at 50.
The most useful of these for population screening are: fecal occult blood testing and sigmoidoscopy. (1) The following are screening tests for colorectal cancer: digital rectal exam, fecal occult blood test (FOBT), sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, and barium enema.
Flexible fiber-optic sigmoidoscopy to the mid-descending colon was unremarkable.