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Colonic Polyps Workup

  • Author: Gregory H Enders, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
Updated: Sep 28, 2015

Laboratory Studies

No laboratory test can determine definitively whether a given patient has a colonic polyp. A stool occult blood test can detect a fraction (20-40%) of colonic polyps that are larger than 10 mm in diameter but, it may also indicate other causes of gastrointestinal blood loss.

Anemia is not specific for colonic polyps but can be an indication of their presence.

A patient with a family history of familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) may inherit a mutation in the APC gene. A blood test may detect this heterozygous state. In addition, because most APC mutations involve truncations of the protein, an in vitro protein truncation assay has been developed by Powell et al.[6] This assay amplifies segments of APC messenger RNA (mRNA) and expresses the protein parts in vitro to readily detect the truncated products. A positive test finding only indicates susceptibility, not the actual presence of a colonic polyp.

Genetic testing of blood samples can also detect most cases of hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC)/Lynch syndrome. Despite the name, patients with HNPCC have multiple polyps but much fewer than that in patients with APC syndrome.


Imaging Studies

Air contrast barium enema

An air contrast barium enema study can detect larger colonic polyps, but it can also miss smaller ones. This imaging modality has a low false-positive rate. In one study, air contrast barium enema detected only about 50% of colonic polyps larger than 1 cm in diameter.

Virtual colonoscopy

Virtual colonoscopy is performed by computed tomography (CT) scanning (or magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]), and it has shown promise in research studies, detecting more than 80% of large polyps. In a large, multicenter trial, however, a disappointing sensitivity of only 55% was obtained for colonic polyps 10 mm or larger in diameter. Another trial found a detection rate for CT scanning that was comparable to colonoscopy, although some methodological issues have been raised regarding this study.[7]

Virtual colonoscopy is beginning to be performed for screening outside of research settings on limited numbers of patients. Relatively recent data from such screening procedures suggest that virtual colonoscopy results in the detection of far fewer polyps that are smaller than 1 centimeter in diameter than standard optical colonoscopy.[8] Most small polyps have very benign characteristics at the time of removal and may be clinically insignificant. However, some are presumably precursors to advanced polyps. Therefore, their clinical significance, particularly for screening intervals, needs better definition.

The main drawback of virtual colonoscopy is that a second procedure, an optical colonoscopy, is required to remove the detected colonic polyps. Whether the radiation exposure from CT scanning may be significant is debated.[9, 10]

In most methods, a thorough colon preparation is required. Methods are under development to label stool with barium meals, obviating the need for cathartic bowel prep.



Bowel cleansing

Adequate bowel cleansing is necessary prior to many procedures.

Several preparations are marketed for bowel cleansing (eg, polyethylene glycol 3350 [GoLYTELY, NuLYTELY, HalfLYTELY], magnesium citrate [Citroma], senna [X-Prep]) in preparing patients for gastrointestinal procedures, such as colonoscopy and barium x-ray studies. More recent experience suggests that splitting the preparation in half, with one portion taken the day before the procedure and the second portion taken early on the day of the procedure (eg, completed at least 4-6 h before the procedure) yields more effective cleansing of the right colon.

Bowel cleansing preparations may be used with various dietary preparations (eg, clear liquid diet the day before surgery or procedure) and are convenient to administer on an outpatient basis. Nonetheless, distaste for or discomfort from the preparation remains a complaint of some patients.


Colonoscopy is the preferred test to detect colonic polyps, obtain biopsies, and/or perform endoscopic resection of polyps.[1] Sensitivities for large colonic polyps in the 80-90% range have been reported.

Although flexible sigmoidoscopy and stool tests for occult blood have been the mainstays of screening to prevent colon cancer, some clinicians now favor colonoscopy as a primary screening tool. Colonoscopy is the preferred tool in patients with defined polyposis or colorectal-cancer syndromes or in patients with a marked family history of colorectal cancer.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy

Flexible sigmoidoscopy is a good screening test and the only procedure or imaging modality to be validated by studies that document a decrease in colorectal cancer mortality. However, this procedure does not examine the entire colon. Studies indicate that the majority of large adenomatous polyps in women will be missed by using flexible sigmoidoscopy alone.

Screening is usually begun at age 50 years in patients who are at average risk.

Randomized controlled trials have documented a reduction in mortality from colon cancer in populations screened by flexible sigmoidoscopy. However, studies suggest that about 40% of high-risk proximal adenomas remain undetected when this procedure is used as the primary screening modality.

Capsule endoscopy

An ingestible, camera-equipped capsule developed as a means of exploring the gastrointestinal tract was approved by the FDA in 2014 for the detection of colon polyps in patents who have had an incomplete optical colonoscopy. The device, a 12 mm ̶ by ̶ 33 mm capsule equipped with 2 miniature color video cameras, transmits images for approximately 10 hours. A study by Hagel et al demonstrated that the capsule had an 81.5% accuracy in detecting polyp carriers (per-patient analysis).[11, 12]

This procedure is currently not endorsed for colon polyp screening. Van Gossum et al compared the efficacy of this device with that of a colonoscope in the detection of colorectal polyps, advanced adenomas, and cancer.[13] In a study of 328 patients with known or suspected colonic disease, the authors found that capsule endoscopy had a sensitivity and specificity of 64% and 84%, respectively, for the detection of polyps that were 6 mm or more in size. Sensitivity and specificity for the detection of advanced adenomas were 73% and 79%, respectively. Capsule endoscopy detected 14 of 19 cancers that had been found using colonoscopy.

The investigators also determined that in patients with good or excellent colon cleanliness, capsule endoscopy's sensitivity was higher for all lesions than it was in individuals whose colon cleanliness was fair or poor. Van Gossum and colleagues concluded that in comparison with colonoscopy, capsule endoscopy has a low sensitivity for the detection of colonic lesions.

Stool DNA studies

Tests have been developed that detect mutant, fragmented, and/or methylated DNA from exfoliated colon tumor cells in stool. These tests have shown the ability to detect a substantial fraction of tumors in clinical trials[14] but are expensive and appear to be less sensitive than colonoscopy.


Histologic Findings and Staging

Adenomatous polyps are of 3 different histological types, as follows: tubular, villous, and tubulovillous. Adenomatous polyps may show changes of dysplasia, which distinguish them from hyperplastic polyps. The most common benign polyp is hyperplastic.

Colonic polyps are typically benign. Colonic polyps that contain high-grade dysplasia or microinvasive cancer confined to the mucosa are often termed carcinoma in situ.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Gregory H Enders, MD, PhD Associate Professor, Fox Chase Cancer Center

Gregory H Enders, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association for Cancer Research, American Gastroenterological Association, American Medical Association, Massachusetts Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Wafik S El-Deiry, MD, PhD Rose Dunlap Professor of Medicine, Chief, Division of Hematology and Oncology, Penn State Hershey Medical Center

Wafik S El-Deiry, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Research, American Society for Clinical Investigation, American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Chief Editor

BS Anand, MD Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Baylor College of Medicine

BS Anand, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Manoop S Bhutani, MD Professor, Co-Director, Center for Endoscopic Research, Training and Innovation (CERTAIN), Director, Center for Endoscopic Ultrasound, Department of Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, University of Texas Medical Branch; Director, Endoscopic Research and Development, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Manoop S Bhutani, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American College of Gastroenterology, American College of Physicians, American Gastroenterological Association, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Research on colon neoplasia in the author's laboratory has been supported by NIH grant #R01DK64758.

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