A capsule containing a tiny camera that takes pictures of the lining of the intestines is one tool doctors have to help detect polyps, cancer, and sources of bleeding in the small intestine that current tests cannot always find. The procedure is called capsule endoscopy.
You swallow a small capsule that contains a camera. As the capsule passes through the small intestine, the camera snaps pictures 4 times per second. The capsule is eventually excreted naturally, without you feeling anything unusual.
As the capsule moves through the GI tract, it sends signals to a data recorder worn on a belt around your waist. You wear the recorder for about 8 hours as you go about your daily activities. The images stored on the data recorder can be downloaded to a computer and viewed by a physician.
Swallowing a capsule with a camera may seem like a science fiction plot, but the technology is available. The capsule and supporting system include:
In many cases, doctors rely on endoscopy to view the small intestine. This involves inserting a thin, lighted tube with a camera, down the throat, through the stomach, and into the small intestine. However, an endoscope cannot reach all of the 20-foot-long small intestine. Capsule endoscopy can provide pictures of the entire length of the small intestine.
This helps to find problems in the small intestine that may not have been previously be seen.
The capsule results are used along with other endoscopic and radiological tests to help make a diagnosis. It is not a replacement for these tests.
The capsule is able to detect signs of health conditions as it passes through the digestive tract. These may include:
The capsule is safe, but there may be minor side effects. Very rarely, the capsule can get stuck in the digestive tract and surgery may be required to remove it.
Studies done on the effectiveness of the capsule in the small intestine have been positive, especially when it is used to evaluate sources of bleeding. Capsule endoscopy has been found to be equal to or better than some other tests that are commonly used.
Some evidence shows that capsule endoscopy may also be effective in evaluations of the colon, but more evidence is needed. More research is being done on the effectiveness of capsule endoscopy in routine colon procedures.
The capsule may not be used on people with:
Technology will bring improvements. Newer forms of the capsule may allow for controlling movement, biopsies, or dispensing medication. Capsule endoscopy is a peek into exciting medical innovations that may keep us healthy without certain hassles of endoscopies or colonoscopies.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
US Food and Drug Administration
Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care
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Hale MF, Sidhu R, et al. Capsule endoscopy: Current practice and future directions. World J Gastrointest Endosc. 2014;20(24):7752-7759.
Leighton JA, Fleischer DE. The role of capsule endoscopy in GI practice in 2012. American Gastroenterological Association website. Available at: http://www.gastro.org/mobiletools/news-item/1299. Accessed October 13, 2016.
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Last reviewed October 2016 by Michael Woods, MD