A person may feel mild discomfort in the rectum or stomach area after a colonoscopy. However, people usually receive sedation or general anesthesia before a colonoscopy, so they will likely feel no pain at the time.

A colonoscopy is a procedure to look for cancerous growths and polyps in the colon.

This article explains the colonoscopy procedure, what discomfort or pain to expect, and options for pain prevention.

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The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPTF) recommends colon cancer screenings, including colonoscopy, beginning at age 45 years. People who are at high risk may wish to start surveillance earlier than this.

Fear of pain and embarrassment before a colonoscopy is common, and it may deter people from seeking this potentially life-saving screening test.

Most colonoscopies in the U.S. involve sedation or deep sedation. In both scenarios, a person will feel no pain during the procedure. This is the case even when a person chooses to be awake during a colonoscopy.

A 2018 study involving 22,725 people who returned colonoscopy questionnaires reports that most did not mention experiencing pain. Reports of pain were less likely among people who had sedation.

Before the procedure, a person lies on a table, usually in a hospital gown that is open at the back.

An anesthesiologist or anesthetist inserts a needle into a vein in the hand or arm and injects medication to help relax the person and prevent pain. If a person receives deep sedation, the medication will put them completely to sleep.

The anesthesiologist will monitor the person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing throughout the procedure.

If a person is very sick, the doctor may give them general anesthesia with a breathing tube to ensure they are stable through the procedure. They will remove this tube immediately after the procedure.

During the procedure, a doctor inserts a long, flexible tube called a colonoscope through the anus and rectum to access the colon.

There is a camera at the end of the tube to help the doctor see the colon. The doctor also inserts air into the colon to expand it and make it easier to see unusual growths.

The procedure usually takes 30–60 minutes. If a doctor sees polyps or other growths in the colon, they may remove them and send them to a laboratory for further testing.

In most cases, a person must prepare for the procedure a day or two in advance by taking laxatives and changing their diet to clean out the intestines. This ensures that a doctor can easily see the inside of the intestines.

People undergoing a colonoscopy are typically not fully conscious. Many people have deep sedation, which means a person is asleep but breathing on their own.

In other cases, a doctor may offer sedation in which a person is awake but unaware and feels no pain.

Some people may choose not to have any sedation. An anesthesiologist may give them medication such as benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan) to help them feel calm during the procedure.

However, the following aspects of the procedure may be uncomfortable or even painful, with or without sedation:

  • Bowel preparation: There must be no stool in the bowel during the procedure. A person usually requires laxatives for a day or two beforehand, which can cause painful diarrhea. Sometimes, a person may need an enema, which can cause discomfort.
  • Embarrassment and discomfort: A colonoscopy involves inserting a tube into the rectum. This can feel unnatural, scary, or embarrassing.
  • Pain during the procedure: Colonoscopy without sedation is possible. However, the tube may irritate the colon or rectum, causing pain. In a 2018 study, 64.5% of 35,216 people who had a colonoscopy filled out a questionnaire. Of them, 14.2% of people who did not have sedation felt pain.
  • Pain after the procedure: Some people have stomach pain after a colonoscopy. People may also experience mild irritation to their rectum, gas, or other digestive problems.

Pain after a colonoscopy usually occurs due to gas or pressure from the scope pressing on the lining on the colon. These symptoms tend to be temporary. However, severe pain could signal a problem, such as damage to the colon or an infection.

It is not unusual to experience some stomach pain after the procedure, because the air can cause bloating. This typically only lasts an hour. Some people may experience mild stomach pain after the procedure.

A person may also have temporary changes in digestion, such as constipation or diarrhea. If the tube irritates the rectum, anus, or intestines, there may be some discomfort when having a bowel movement.

Very rarely, a person may experience severe pain or bleeding that signals a serious complication, such as damage to the colon or an infection.

A 2023 review summarizes research stating that 2.8 out of 1,000 people having screening colonoscopies and 5 out of 1,000 symptomatic people undergoing colonoscopies experience complications.

A person should contact a doctor right away if they experience:

The USPSTF highlights sedation in its clinician recommendations. However, some doctors may perform the procedure without sedation at a patient’s request or because of the potential risks associated with sedation.

Sedation adds another variable to the procedure and requires someone to monitor the patient for complications. This increases the resources necessary for colonoscopies and the risk of complications. However, the overall risk of complications remains low.

A 2023 study investigated the following three distractions as an alternative to sedation in reducing the perception of pain during a colonoscopy.

  • music
  • audiovisual distractions
  • stress balls

The researchers found that colonoscopy pain severity was lower in the music and audiovisual distraction groups in than the stress ball and control groups. However, there was no difference in anxiety levels.

People in the music group also reported greater satisfaction after the procedure than any other group. The researchers suggest music and audiovisual distractions may be an effective alternative strategy for reducing colonoscopy pain.

People who are planning to undergo a colonoscopy should discuss their fears and treatment goals with a doctor.

For example, some people fear the effects of anesthesia or complications from the procedure, while others do not want to feel anything or worry that the procedure will be embarrassing.

Knowing someone’s concerns can help a doctor identify the best way to perform the procedure.

It is important for a person to contact a doctor if they experience severe pain or any of the following after the procedure:

  • bloody bowel movements
  • bleeding from the anus
  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • dizziness
  • weakness

Below are some common questions about colonoscopy pain.

Is a colonoscopy painful without sedation?

People who do not undergo sedation may experience more pain during and after a colonoscopy than those who choose sedation.

However, distraction strategies such as listening to music may help to relieve pain.

Does it hurt to poop after a colonoscopy?

If a doctor removed polyps during surgery, people may experience some discomfort and a small amount blood in stools that decreases over time after a colonoscopy. However, bleeding should not occur generally.

People should see a doctor immediately if they experience bleeding that does not stop.

Colonoscopy preparation, which may involve laxatives, can also cause changes in bowel habits or symptoms, such as constipation or diarrhea, that continue after the procedure.

People who experience pain or symptoms such as this can speak with their doctor about safe management strategies.

Does a colonoscopy hurt if someone has hemorrhoids?

Colonoscopies can irritate swollen hemorrhoids, which may cause some bleeding and discomfort. If a person experiences severe pain or bleeding, they should contact their doctor immediately.

A colonoscopy can be frightening, especially for the first time. However, it remains a very effective way to detect and sometimes treat colon health problems, such as polyps and cancer.

The procedure is quick, and it can be painless with sedation. Even without sedation, distraction strategies such as listening to music can help to manage pain. The benefits of detecting colon cancer early outweigh the minimal discomforts of the procedure.

People who feel anxious about having a colonoscopy can talk with a doctor and educate themselves about the procedure. Learning how a doctor performs it may help ease any concerns about pain and embarrassment.