Polyps of the Colon and Rectum

ByAnthony Villano, MD, Fox Chase Cancer Center
Reviewed/Revised Oct 2023
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An intestinal polyp is any mass of tissue that arises from the bowel wall and protrudes into the lumen. Most are asymptomatic except for minor bleeding, which is usually occult. The main concern is malignant transformation; most colon cancers arise in a previously benign adenomatous polyp. Diagnosis is by endoscopy. Treatment is endoscopic removal.

Polyps may be sessile or pedunculated and vary considerably in size. Incidence of polyps ranges from 7 to 50%; the higher figure includes very small polyps (usually hyperplastic polyps or adenomas) found at autopsy. Polyps, often multiple, occur most commonly in the rectum and sigmoid and decrease in frequency toward the cecum. Multiple polyps may represent familial adenomatous polyposis. About 25% of patients with cancer of the large bowel also have satellite adenomatous polyps.

Adenomatous (neoplastic) polyps are of greatest concern. Such lesions are classified histologically as tubular adenomas, tubulovillous adenomas (villoglandular polyps), or villous adenomas. The likelihood of cancer in an adenomatous polyp at the time of discovery is related to size, histologic type, and degree of dysplasia; a 1.5-cm tubular adenoma has a 2% risk of containing a cancer vs a 35% risk in 3-cm villous adenomas. Serrated adenomas, a somewhat more aggressive type of adenoma, may develop from hyperplastic polyps.

Nonadenomatous (nonneoplastic) polyps include hyperplastic polyps, hamartomas (see Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome), juvenile polyps, pseudopolyps, lipomas, leiomyomas, and other rarer tumors. Juvenile polyps occur in children, typically outgrow their blood supply, and autoamputate some time during or after puberty. Treatment is required only for uncontrollable bleeding or intussusception. Inflammatory polyps and pseudopolyps occur in chronic ulcerative colitis and in Crohn disease of the colon. Multiple juvenile polyps (but not sporadic ones) convey an increased cancer risk. The specific number of polyps resulting in increased risk is not known.

Examples of Colorectal Polyps
Sessile Polyp
Sessile Polyp

    This image shows a sessile, multilobulated polyp, which, on biopsy, turned out to be a benign tubular adenoma.

Image provided by David M. Martin, MD.

Pedunculated Polyp
Pedunculated Polyp

    This image shows a pedunculated polyp, which, on biopsy, turned out to be a benign tubular adenoma.

Image provided by David M. Martin, MD.

Tubulovillous Adenoma
Tubulovillous Adenoma

    This image shows a sessile polyp, which, on biopsy, turned out to be a tubulovillous adenoma.

Image provided by David M. Martin, MD.

Symptoms and Signs of Colorectal Polyps

Most polyps are asymptomatic. Rectal bleeding, usually occult and rarely massive, is the most frequent complaint.

Cramps, abdominal pain, or obstruction may occur with a large lesion.

Rectal polyps may be palpable by digital examination. Occasionally, a polyp on a long pedicle may prolapse through the anus.

Large villous adenomas may rarely cause watery diarrhea that may result in hypokalemia.

Diagnosis of Colorectal Polyps

  • Colonoscopy

Diagnosis of colonic polyps is usually made by colonoscopy. Barium enema, particularly double-contrast examination, is effective, but colonoscopy is preferred because polyps also may be removed during that procedure. Because rectal polyps are often multiple and may coexist with cancer, complete colonoscopy to the cecum is mandatory even if a distal lesion is found by flexible sigmoidoscopy.

During colonoscopy, any polyps seen are removed and evaluated for possible cancer.

Treatment of Colorectal Polyps

  • Complete removal during colonoscopy

  • Sometimes follow with surgical resection

  • Follow-up surveillance colonoscopy

Polyps should be removed completely with a snare or biopsy forceps during total colonoscopy. If colonoscopic removal is unsuccessful, laparotomy should be done.

Subsequent treatment depends on the histology of the polyp. If dysplastic epithelium does not invade the muscularis mucosa, the line of resection in the polyp’s stalk is clear, and the lesion is well differentiated, endoscopic excision and close endoscopic follow-up should suffice. Patients with deeper invasion, an unclear resection line, or a poorly differentiated lesion should have segmental resection of the colon. Because invasion through the muscularis mucosa provides access to lymphatics and increases the potential for lymph node metastasis, such patients should have further evaluation (as in colon cancer).

The scheduling of follow-up examinations after polypectomy is controversial and varies by the number, size, and type of polyps removed (1). For example, guidelines recommend a repeat total colonoscopy (or barium enema if total colonoscopy is impossible) 3 years after removal of a tubular adenoma ≥ 10 mm or a villous adenoma of any size.

Treatment reference

  1. 1. Gupta S, Lieberman D, Anderson JC, et al: Recommendations for Follow-Up After Colonoscopy and Polypectomy: A Consensus Update by the US Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer. Am J Gastroenterol 115(3):415-434, 2020. doi: 10.14309/ajg.0000000000000544

Prevention of Colorectal Polyps

1). The potential benefits of long-term therapy with these agents must be weighed against the potential adverse effects (eg, bleeding, renal dysfunction).

Prevention reference

  1. 1. Cook NR, Lee IM, Zhang SM, et al: Alternate-day, low-dose aspirin and cancer risk: Long-term observational follow-up of a randomized trial. Ann Int Med 159:77–85, 2013. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-159-2-201307160-00002

Key Points

  • Colonic polyps are common; the incidence ranges from 7 to 50% (depending on the diagnostic method used).

  • The main concern is malignant transformation, which occurs at different rates depending on the size and type of polyp.

  • The main symptom is bleeding, usually occult and rarely massive.

  • Colonoscopy is the recommended diagnostic and therapeutic procedure.

More Information

The following English-language resource may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

  1. U.S. Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer: Recommendations for Follow-Up After Colonoscopy and Polypectomy: A Consensus Update (2020)

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