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Barium Enema

What is a barium enema?

A barium enema is a procedure that uses X-rays and barium to examine your large intestine (colon) and rectum. Barium is a liquid that can be seen on X-rays.

This procedure is also called a lower gastrointestinal (GI) exam or lower GI.

When is it used?

This procedure is used to look for problems in your intestines, such as:

  • Diverticula (weak areas or pouches in the wall of your intestine)
  • Polyps (growths on the inner wall of the colon or rectum)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Cancer

How do I prepare for this procedure?

  • Tell your provider if you have any food, medicine, or other allergies such as latex.
  • Tell your provider if you’ve had any recent exams of your intestines, such as a colonoscopy or barium swallow.
  • Because the large intestine needs to be empty, you will have a special diet for a day or two before the exam. Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for what you should or should not eat or drink before the procedure.
  • Your provider may ask you to take an enema or medicine to clean out your bowels before the procedure.
  • You may or may not need to take your regular medicines the day of the procedure. Tell your healthcare provider about all medicines and supplements that you take. Some products may increase your child’s risk of side effects. Ask your healthcare provider if you need to avoid taking any medicine or supplements before the procedure.
  • Follow any instructions your healthcare provider may give you.
  • Ask any questions you have before the procedure. You should understand what the healthcare provider is going to do. You have the right to make decisions about your healthcare and to give permission for any tests or procedures.

What happens during the procedure?

During the test, you will lie on an X-ray table. An X-ray is taken to make sure that your bowels are free of bowel movements. The technologist will put a tube into your rectum and up into your colon and barium will be put through this tube. The technologist will take X-rays that show the barium as it moves through your colon and down toward your rectum. You may be asked to change positions several times while the X-rays are taken. At times, pressure may be applied to your belly, or the table may be tilted to get different views.

You may have a double contrast barium enema. In this test, the barium will be allowed to drain out, leaving a thin coating of barium on the lining of your intestines. Then air will be carefully pumped into your colon so the inner walls of your colon can be seen with X-rays.

You may have some cramps or an urge to have a bowel movement during the test. Taking long, deep breaths through your mouth may help you relax. The enema tube is designed to help you keep the barium in.

At the end of the test, the tube will be removed and you will go to the restroom to pass the barium (and any air) in your intestine. You will then return to the table for a final X-ray.

The procedure takes about an hour. Usually you will need to hold the barium in your bowel for no more than 15 minutes.

What happens after the procedure?

You may feel weak and dizzy after the procedure.

Your bowel movements may look white or gray as you pass the rest of the barium over the next few days. Barium can cause constipation. Unless your provider tells you otherwise, drink plenty of water and eat foods high in fiber until all the barium passes. If you had a double contrast barium enema, you may have cramping until all the air has passed from your bowel.

Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

What are the risks of this procedure?

Every procedure or treatment has risks. Rare risks of this procedure include:

  • Rarely, you may have an allergic reaction to medicines used during the procedure.
  • The barium could cause a blockage in your intestines, which can cause belly pain, nausea and vomiting. A blockage can be life-threatening.
  • The wall of the intestine may become irritated or tear if it is weak. If this happens, you may need surgery.

Ask your healthcare provider how these risks apply to you. Be sure to discuss any other questions or concerns that you may have.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-01-06
Last reviewed: 2014-09-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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