Practice Rational Imaging

Investigating rectal bleeding

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: (Published 13 December 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:1260
  1. David Burling, consultant gastrointestinal radiologist 1,
  2. James E East, research fellow in endoscopy 2,
  3. Stuart A Taylor, senior lecturer3
  1. 1Intestinal Imaging Centre, St Mark’s Hospital, Harrow HA1 3UJ
  2. 2Wolfson Unit for Endoscopy, St Mark’s Hospital
  3. 3Department of Specialist Radiology, University College Hospital, London NW1 2BU
  1. Correspondence to: D Burling burlingdavid{at}

    Conventional colonoscopy is considered the optimal investigation for rectal bleeding; however, this article explores the use of virtual colonoscopy as a new investigative technique

    Learning points

    • Conventional colonoscopy is considered the optimal procedure for investigating rectal bleeding and is the only investigation that allows tissue removal, is widely available, and does not involve radiation

    • For some patients, virtual colonoscopy may be preferable as it is minimally invasive and convenient for patients and may also provide additional extracolonic information

    • Diagnostic virtual colonoscopy and therapeutic endoscopy can be complementary techniques

    • Close collaboration between endoscopy and radiology staff enables same day (single visit) virtual colonoscopy and conventional colonoscopy

    The patient

    An 83 year old man was referred to a surgical outpatient clinic by his general practitioner via the “two week wait” bowel cancer pathway for patients with persistent rectal bleeding (painless dark red blood with clots per rectum for one month with blood mixed in the stool) but no anal symptoms. He had had no weight loss or change in bowel habit, and except for hypertension, he was a fit non-smoker with no family history of colorectal cancer. Abdominal examination showed no masses, and rigid sigmoidoscopy to 15 cm was unremarkable.

    What is the next investigation?

    The patient’s symptoms suggested a possible underlying colorectal cancer, which was therefore the primary target of investigation. Flexible sigmoidoscopy was deemed inappropriate in this patient as (regardless of whether the sigmoidoscopy result was negative or positive) the proximal colon would have required examination to detect a proximal cancer or to exclude a synchronous cancer (or advanced polyp), which could be included in the subsequent surgical resection.

    Currently three options are available for whole colon investigation of rectal bleeding to look for colorectal cancer: conventional colonoscopy, barium enema, and virtual colonoscopy (or computed tomography colonography).

    Conventional colonoscopy

    Conventional colonoscopy is the only option that enables tissue biopsy or polyp …

    View Full Text

    Sign in

    Log in through your institution