Endoscopy describes many procedures that look inside the body using some type of endoscope, a flexible tube with a small TV camera and a light on one end and an eyepiece on the other. The endoscope allows doctors to examine the inside of certain tube-like structures in the body. Many endoscopes transmit the doctor's view to a video screen. Most endoscopes have attachments that permit doctors to take fluid or tissue samples for laboratory testing.

Upper endoscopy allows a doctor to see inside the esophagus, stomach and top parts of the small intestine. Bronchoscopy examines the large airways inside the lungs (bronchi). Sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy examine different parts of the lower digestive tract. Each type of endoscopy uses a slightly different endoscope with a different name — an upper endoscope for upper endoscopy, a bronchoscope for bronchoscopy, a sigmoidoscope for sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscope for colonoscopy. Other endoscopes allow doctors to see inside the abdomen and inside joints through small incisions.

The amount of pain or discomfort you feel depends on the area of the body being examined. Sigmoidoscopy (examination of the rectum and lower colon) rarely requires pain medication, whereas upper endoscopy, bronchoscopy and colonoscopy usually require sedation.

Endoscopy procedures vary in length: 10 to 15 minutes for sigmoidoscopy, 20 to 30 minutes for upper endoscopy, about 30 minutes for bronchoscopy and colonoscopy.

What It's Used For

Endoscopy is a common procedure used for many reasons, including:

  • Cancer prevention — Sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy allow doctors to find and remove polyps before they become colon cancers.
  • Diagnostic evaluation of symptoms — Upper endoscopy and colonoscopy allow doctors to view organs directly and take pictures of any abnormalities that may be causing symptoms such as abdominal pain or rectal bleeding. The doctor can remove a sample of tissue (biopsy) through the endoscope during the procedure. The doctor may also obtain images of nearby organs, such as the pancreas, by an ultrasound attachment to an endoscope.
  • Biopsy of an abnormal finding on a chest X-ray — During bronchoscopy, the doctor can take samples of secretions and bronchial and lung tissue to be examined in a laboratory.
  • Removal of a foreign body — Endoscopy allows doctors to find and remove foreign bodies from the upper lung airways or gastrointestinal tract.
  • Treatment — Doctors can use a variety of measures (clips, cautery, laser beams, etc.) to treat bleeding areas that they encounter during endoscopy. They can also remove small cancers, obviating the need for invasive surgery.