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Barium Enema

What is a Barium Enema Procedure?

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A barium enema is mainly a diagnostic test used to examine the large intestine (colon and rectum) for abnormalities. The test has two main parts:

  1. The first is the installation of contrast material that contains barium (barium sulfate, a powder that is mixed with water resulting in a solution that decreases and/or blocks X-rays), and
  2. The second consists of examining the barium-filled or barium-outlined large bowel inner surface with X-rays that are produced by a fluoroscope.

Before the test is done, individuals may require a thorough cleansing of the large bowel so that stool and gas in the bowel is removed; such cleansing insures the examination has no interfering substances. When the contrast material containing barium is introduced into the large bowel by an enema tube inserted through the anus, the barium provides contrast to the X-rays that reveal the outlines of the intestine's lumen (interior surface) and may reveal several types of abnormalities that may be present. This is termed a single-contrast study. In some patients, the barium is instilled and then removed through the enema tube leaving a thin layer of barium on the wall of the colon. The colon is then filled with air. The result provides a detailed view of the colon's interior surface and makes X-ray detection of various structures (polyps, masses), diverticula, strictures or inflammation of the bowel tissue easier to detect. This test variation is termed a double-contrast study. Barium enemas are done to identify inflammation, strictures, diverticula, inflammation and other abnormalities that may be present mainly in the large bowel.

Barium enema tests are ordered less frequently these days, since the availability of other tests like colonoscopy, CT scan, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have become increasingly available and affordable. In addition, some studies suggest barium enemas may, in some instances, be inferior to other tests at discovering some large bowel problems. Most tests have advantages and disadvantages; you and your doctor should discuss which of these tests is best for you.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/30/2015

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