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What is a virtual colonoscopy?

A virtual colonoscopy is a CT (computed tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan of the colon and rectum. CT relies on X-rays to generate the image and MRI uses a different type of technology not involving X-rays. Your doctor may recommend a virtual colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer and possibly look for other diseases of the colon. A virtual colonoscopy is an important test that can help detect colorectal cancer in its earliest, most curable stage and other serious conditions.

The colon and the rectum make up the large intestine, sometimes called the large bowel. The large intestine is a long, hollow organ in your abdomen that plays an important role in digestion by removing water from digested material and forming feces. In addition to looking for signs of colorectal cancer, a virtual colonoscopy can help your doctor find the reason for unexplained intestinal symptoms you may be having, such as changes in your bowel movements, abdominal pain, or rectal bleeding.

Virtual colonoscopy, also known as a CT colonography, is only one method used to screen for colon cancer. A conventional colonoscopy is also used to screen for colon cancer and to help detect other diseases of the colon. A colonoscopy is a more invasive procedure that allows your doctor to see the lining of your colon and rectum using a thin, flexible instrument with a camera, called a colonoscope. This instrument is inserted through the rectum into the colon. 

Certain procedures can be done during a colonoscopy that cannot be performed during a virtual colonoscopy. These include taking a biopsy, controlling bleeding, and removing polyps (growths that can become cancerous). You should discuss all of your diagnostic and colon cancer screening options with your doctor or healthcare provider to best understand which option is right for you.

Medical Reviewers: Daphne E. Hemmings, MD, MPH Last Review Date: May 7, 2013

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Medical References

CT Colonography. American College of Radiology. http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=ct_colo. Accessed April 16, 2013.
Learn About Cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/detailedguide/colorectal-cancer-key-statistics. Accessed April 16, 2013.
Virtual Colonoscopy. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/virtualcolonoscopy/index.aspx. Accessed April 16, 2013.

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