What are Colorectal Polyps?

Lynndee Molyneaux

Colorectal polyps are any type of bump that can be found in the lining of the colon. They are usually benign, but can sometimes be cancerous. When detected early, they can generally be removed completely before they have a chance to develop into cancer. Since they usually do not present any symptoms until they grow to a large size and have a higher risk of malignancy, regularly screening for colorectal polyps can often prevent colon cancer.

A specially designed camera helps physicians spot tiny polyps in a colon.
A specially designed camera helps physicians spot tiny polyps in a colon.

There are three common types of colorectal polyps — hyperplastic, adenomatous, and inflammatory polyps. Hyperplastic polyps are usually small and found on the left, or descending colon. They typically do not carry cancer risk, unless they become large or present on the right, or ascending colon. Adenomatous polyps, or adenomas, are benign polyps that may develop into cancer if not removed. Inflammatory polyps are usually not a significant threat, and can result from a Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis flare up.

Colorectal polyps are found in the lining of the colon.
Colorectal polyps are found in the lining of the colon.

Polyps typically form in the colon due to gene mutations. Genes control cell growth and cause them to divide in an orderly fashion. Mutations can sometimes throw this order off, and cause cells to keep dividing uncontrollably.

Symptoms of colorectal polyps may include abdominal pain and nausea.
Symptoms of colorectal polyps may include abdominal pain and nausea.

Colorectal polyps can typically be smaller than a pea, or larger than a golf ball. Larger polyps are more likely to become cancerous than are smaller ones. Patients generally do not experience symptoms until the polyps reach the larger end of the size spectrum, when the risk of developing cancer is greater. Symptoms may include rectal bleeding, bloody stool, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. People who experience abdominal pain, bloody stools, or unusual bowel habits that last over a week should probably see their doctors to check for serious issues.

Just as they can be different sizes, colorectal polyps can be different shapes. Some are flat, or sessile, while others are mushroom-shaped, or pedunculated. Those that are mushroom-shaped have a much lower chance of developing into cancer than those that are flat.

Risk factors for colorectal polyps typically include smoking, being overweight, having an inflammatory bowel disease, eating a diet high in fat and low in fiber, having a family history of colorectal polyps or colon cancer, and being over the age of 50. It is generally recommended that individuals over age 50 visit their doctors regularly for polyp screenings. Those with a family history of colon cancer should generally begin getting regular polyp screenings at an even earlier age.

People who want to lower their risk of developing colon cancer as much as possible should maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and eat a diet that is low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber. Those who have a family history of adeneomatous polyps may consider taking aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), as studies have suggested that these medications can prevent colon cancer. Finally, having regular polyp screenings is an important and effective preventative measure against colon cancer.

Polyps typically form in the colon due to gene mutations.
Polyps typically form in the colon due to gene mutations.

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