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SSAT Patient Care Guidelines

Management of Colonic Polyps and Adenomas


Polyps of the colon are mucosal lesions which project into the lumen of the bowel. According to autopsy studies, colonic polyps occur in more than 30% of people over the age of 60. Approximately 70-80% of resected polyps are adenomatous. Adenomatous lesions have a well-documented relationship to colorectal cancer. This adenoma-carcinoma progression represents a significant public health problem, since colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer specific mortality in the United States. Therefore, appropriate management of colonic polyps may reduce the risk of death from colorectal cancer.

Types of Polyps

There are four types of colonic polyps: adenomatous, hyperplastic, harmartomatous and inflammatory. In addition to these histologic features, polyps are generally described as being either sessile (flat) or pedunculated (having a stalk). Inflammatory and small hyperplastic polyps do not have malignant potential and therefore do not require any further intervention and should not alter surveillance intervals. While most harmotomatous polyps do not have malignant potential, those associated with Peutz-Jeghers syndrome and juvenile polyposis do contain a risk for malignant transformation and therefore require more aggressive intervention and monitoring. Adenomatous polyps are considered precursors for invasive colon and rectal cancer. Histologically these polyps are either villous, tubular or tubulovillous. The risk of malignancy increases with both the size of the polyp and the degree of villous component.


Most colonic polyps are asymptomatic. Those which are symptomatic usually present with lower GI bleeding. This may range from occult bleeding, as detected by fecal occult testing or the presence of iron deficiency anemia, to frank blood per rectum. Polyps are rarely the source of a significant lower GI bleeding. Some low rectal polyps may cause a mucus discharge from the rectum. Most polyps cannot be discovered by physical exam. However, some low-lying rectal polyps can be detected by digital rectal examination.

There are asymptomatic patients who are at high risk. These include patients with a family history of polyps or colon and rectal cancer, patients with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, and patients with a polyposis syndrome (i.e., familial adenomatous polyposis, hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer [HNPCC]).

Methods of Diagnosis

There are several methods available to detect colonic polyps. These include: sigmoidoscopy every 5 years, colonoscopy every 10 years, double contrast barium enema every 5 years, computed tomographic colonography every 5 years or virtual colonoscopy. There are several studies suggesting that yearly high sensitivity guaiac-based fecal occult blood testing, especially if combined with sigmoidoscopy, may decrease the mortality of colorectal cancer. Proper follow-up testing, usually colonoscopy, is mandatory for patients with positive results. Colonoscopy is now accepted as the most accurate method of detecting colonic polyps. Colonoscopy also allows simultaneous removal of most lesions.

However, colonoscopy is clearly the most invasive and the most expensive of our screening tools. Nevertheless, colonoscopy is rapidly becoming the most common method for colon polyp and cancer screening. Current recommendations for non-high risk patients (i.e., no family history) is to begin surveillance at age fifty with routine colonoscopy that is to be repeated every 10 years. Since most clinically significant colon polyps are located distal to the splenic flexure, flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years may be a reasonable alternative to colonoscopy.

However, lesions in the right colon may go undetected and those patients found to have a polyp on flexible sigmoidoscopy will then need a full colonoscopy, subjecting these patients to both tests. The combination of double contrast barium enema and sigmoidoscopy is better tolerated by some patients and is less expensive and safer than routine diagnostic colonoscopy, but obligates many patients to a second procedure for therapeutic intervention. The incidence of significant bleeding and perforation is less than 1% for colonoscopy, as compared to only 0.01% for the barium enema. Computed tomographic colonography, or virtual colonoscopy, while seemingly effective at detecting polyps greater than 5mm in size still requires traditional colonoscopic examination for biopsy and/or polypectomy. To date it has not proven a suitable modality for routine screeningGenetic testing of stool is able to non-invasively detect colon cancers, but the most appropriate testing interval is still uncertain.

Management of Colonic Polyps

Patients undergoing treatment of colonic polyps require mechanical bowel preparation prior to colonoscopy. Most polyps can be removed during colonoscopy using electrocautery techniques. Surgical removal is indicated only when an experienced endoscopist cannot completely remove the polyp safely. In order to minimize the risk of future malignancy, polyps should be completely removed or destroyed. While total excision of the polyp is desirable, small polyps (0.5 cm or less) can be treated by biopsy and fulguration. Most pedunculated polyps are amenable to snare polypectomy using electrocautery.

Sessile polyps larger than 2 cm usually contain villous features, have a higher malignant potential, and may recur following colonoscopic polypectomy. If complete or safe colonoscopic resection is not possible for technical reasons, the lesion should be biopsied and the patient referred for primary surgical therapy. In cases where the lesion can be removed piecemeal via the colonoscope, follow-up endoscopy should be done in 3-6 months to confirm complete resection. Residual adenomatous tissue noted at follow-up colonoscopy should be removed and another confirmatory colonoscopy performed 3 months later. Surgical resection is recommended for residual abnormal tissue at the polypectomy site after two or three attempts at colonoscopic removal.

The resected polyp must be completely examined pathologically. Histologically, adenomatous polyps can show a benign adenoma (tubular, tubulovillous or villous), carcinoma in situ, or invasive cancer. Colonoscopic removal is definitive therapy for benign adenomatous polyps or in patients having polyps with carcinoma in situ. If pedunculated polyps contain invasive carcinoma, colonoscopic removal is adequate treatment in the uniform presence of favorable prognostic indicators such as complete excision, no lymphovascular invasion, clear (>= 2 mm) margins, and well-differentiated histology. A follow-up examination within three months is recommended to confirm the presence or absence of residual or recurrent disease. Any patient with lesions not meeting these criteria should undergo elective resection of the involved segment of the colon or rectum. Additional staging procedures such CT scanning, endoscopic ultrasound, or pelvic MR imaging may be helpful.

Post-Polypectomy Surveillance

The entire colon must be examined during the polypectomy procedure so that any synchronous lesions can be detected and removed. Approximately 50% of patients will have a second adenomatous polyp at the time of initial colonoscopy, while metachronous polyps are found in 20-50% of patients within five years of the initial polypectomy. If follow-up colonoscopy verifies that no residual polyps exist, colonoscopy should be repeated every five years. Patients who undergo complete removal of 1-2 tubular adenoma smaller than 1 cm should have a surveillance colonoscopy 5-10 years post-polypectomy. Patients with 3-10 small tubular adenomas should undergo surveillance colonoscopy in 3 years, and those with >10 tubular adenomas should be rescoped in <3 years. A 3-year surveillance interval is recommended for patients with one or more tubular adenomas >= 1 cm in size, one or more villous adenomas, or an adenoma with high-grade dysplasia. Serrated adenomas are generally treated similar to adenomas

Complications of Colonoscopic Polypectomy

Colonoscopic polypectomy has an overall complication rate of 1-2%, with bleeding as the most common complication. Other complications include free perforation of the bowel, microperforation, transmural electrocautery burn, pneumatosis cystoides intestinalis, splenic capsular tear, and avulsion of a mesenteric blood vessel. Many of these complications can be treated as necessary, but peritonitis or unrelenting hemorrhage requires urgent laparotomy.

Surgical Treatment of Colonic Polyps

A colonic polyp that is deemed unresectable endoscopically requires a colonic resection. Localization is critical prior to surgical removal. Lesions can be endoscopically tattooed prior to surgery to assist in localization. Introperative colonoscopy may also be necessary if the lesion is not readily identifiable. The specimen should be opened at the time of surgery to confirm resection of the suspicious lesion. Since surgery is reserved only for those polyps deemed endscopically unresectable, these polyps must be considered high risk for containing an invasive malignancy. Therefore, surgery, whether laparoscopic or open, should follow the principles of colorectal cancer surgery.

Effective surgical treatment of rectal polyps would require or mucosectomy or full thickness excision depending upon the size of the lesion and suspicion for invasive adenocarcinoma. Such techniques may save patients the significant morbidity of having a proctectomy. For patients with endscopically unresectable polyps of the upper rectum, transanal endoscopic microsurgery (TEM) may be an option, but requires specialized expertise.

Qualifications for a Surgeon Treating Colonic Polyps

The qualifications of a surgeon performing any operative procedure should be based on training (education), experience, and outcomes. At a minimum, surgeons who are certified or eligible for certification by the American Board of Surgery or the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, or their equivalent should perform colonoscopy and/or colectomy. These surgeons have successfully completed at least 5 years of surgical training after medical school graduation and are qualified to perform operations on the colon. The level of training in advanced laparoscopic techniques necessary to conduct minimally invasive surgery of the colon is important to assess.


DeMeester S and Choti MA. “Colorectal Polyps” in Current Surgical Therapy. Cameron, JL, ed. 7th edit, pg255, 2001.

Levin B, Lieberman DA, McFarland B, et al. Screening and surveillance for the early detection of colorectal cancer and adenomatous polyps, 2008: a joint guideline from the American Cancer Society, the US Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer, and the American College of Radiology. Gastroenterology 2008;134:1570-1595.

Lieberman DA, Rex DK, Winawer SJ, et al. Guidelines for colonoscopy surveillance after screening and polypectomy: a consensus update by the US Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer. Gastroenterology 2012;143:844-857.

Key Words - patient, guideline, colorectal, colonic, polyps, surveillance, polypectomy, colectomy, neoplasia, colonoscopy, adenoma.

Board Approved October 8, 1996
Revised 9-27-96
Revised 10-20-96
Revised 2-5-97
Revised 5-8-97
Revised 5-11-97
Revised 8-21-97
Revised 9/28/99
Revised 11/1/99
Proofed 1/8/00
Revised 10/12/04
Revised 1/20/05
Board Approved 5/14/05
Revised 11/22/13
Board Approved 11/22/13

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SSAT Patient Care Committee Guidelines

These patient care guidelines were written for the primary care physicians on a variety of digestive diseases to assist on when to refer the patient for surgical consultation.
Their goal is to guide PRIMARY CARE physicians to the appropriate utilization of surgical procedures on the alimentary tract or related organs and they are based on critical review of the literature and expert opinion. Both of the latter sources of information result in a consensus that is recorded in the form of these Guidelines. The consensus addressses the range of acceptable clinical practice and should not be construed as a standard of care. These Guidelines require periodic revision to ensure that clinicians utilize procedures appropriately but the reader must realize that clinical judgment may justify a course of action outside of the recommendations contained herein.

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