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Barium meal

The organs of the digestive system don't show up on x-ray unless they are 'outlined' by barium meal. This is a medical test used to examine the condition of the digestive tract using a heavy, white, radio-opaque powder called barium sulfate. This powder is usually flavoured and mixed with a liquid which is then swallowed by the patient. The mixture passes quickly into the digestive tract and its progress is followed by taking x-rays over different periods of time, depending on which part of the digestive tract the doctor wants to observe. A barium swallow involves x-ray examination of the oesophagus, and is used to help diagnose swallowing or reflux problems.

Problems that may be diagnosed with barium meal
By looking at the x-rays, the doctor is able to see a wide range of problems including:

  • Abnormal shape of the digestive tract
  • Areas of narrowing
  • Filling problems
  • Ulceration
  • Damage to the digestive tract lining.
Medical issues to consider
Before the procedure, you need to discuss a range of issues with your doctor including:
  • If constipated, you will be given a laxative the night before the barium meal.
  • For eight hours beforehand, you are not allowed to eat or drink anything. The x-rays will be easier to read without food particles in the digestive tract.
  • Tell your doctor if you have insulin-dependent diabetes, so that you can decide together the best time for your fast and subsequent test.
  • Pregnant women should not undergo this test.
Test procedure
You swallow the barium drink. The drink is fizzy because it contains ingredients that cause gas, which helps to expand your stomach and duodenum. (You may have to resist the urge to burp.) In some cases, a muscle relaxant may be injected into your abdominal wall. You will be asked by the radiographer to stand or lie in a number of different postures, while x-rays are taken. The x-ray machine is linked to a television monitor, and photographs or video footage can be taken if necessary. Generally, the procedure takes around 20 minutes. If necessary, you may need to have follow-up x-rays; in some cases, several x-rays over three to six hours in order to examine the small intestine and colon.

After the test
After the procedure, you can expect:
  • Constipation
  • Light coloured faeces.
Possible complications
Barium meal is a safe test, but complications can sometimes occur. These may include:
  • Accidentally breathing in the barium meal instead of swallowing it.
  • If a section of the digestive tract has an undiagnosed perforation, the barium meal may leak into the abdominal cavity.
  • If the bowel is obstructed, the barium meal can become impacted.
  • The barium meal can lodge in the appendix and cause appendicitis.
  • There may be side effects (such as blurred vision) from the drugs used during the test.
Taking care of yourself at home
Be advised by your doctor, but general suggestions include:
  • Barium meal can cause constipation, so it is best to drink plenty of fluids for at least one full day following the test.
  • Eat more fruit than usual for the next day or two to help move your bowels.
  • See your doctor if you haven't had a bowel motion within three days.
Long term outlook
You will need to make another appointment with your doctor to discuss the results of your barium meal. A negative result may require further tests if symptoms persist. Treatment depends on the diagnosis.

Other tests
Other tests used to examine the digestive tract include:
  • Barium enema - examinations of the small intestine and colon are usually done via barium enema. The preparation isn't swallowed, but gently flushed into the bowel through the anus. X-rays are then taken.
  • Flexible endoscopy - an endoscope, a slender tube with a lens at one end and a telescope at the other, is inserted into the patient via an orifice (such as mouth or anus) or a small incision. The doctor looks down the telescoped end for a magnified view.
  • Computerised tomography (CT) scan - the use of x-rays and digital computer technology to create an image of internal body structures.
Where to get help
  • Your doctor
Things to remember
  • Barium meal is a medical test used to examine the condition of the digestive tract using a heavy, white and radio-opaque powder called barium sulfate.
  • The powder is mixed with flavoured liquid, swallowed, and then x-rays are taken.
  • By looking at the x-rays, the doctor is able to see a wide range of problems including areas of narrowing, ulceration or damage.

    Related articles:


Bowel cancer.
Irritable bowel syndrome.


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Article publication date: 05/02/2002
Last reviewed: 28/02/2004

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