A barium enema is a diagnostic test that uses X-ray images to detect abnormalities of the large intestine. The colon is filled with a contrast material that contains barium, which coats the inside of the intestine and blocks X-rays in order to allow the structures of the large intestine to be seen on X-ray films.
Barium enema can be used to diagnose conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, narrowing in the intestine, and pockets or sacs in the intestinal wall. It may also be used to explore possible causes of abdominal pain, unusual bowel habits or other intestinal problems, and to screen for colon polyps or cancer.
It is recommended that people aged 50 or above be screened for colon cancer every 5 years (your doctor will recommend whether you should have a barium enema or other screening tests).
Risks and precautions
Barium enema is usually a straightforward and safe procedure. However, there are some risks of complications or side effects, including:
- perforation of the bowel (where part of the bowel breaks open - this is very rare)
- radiation exposure (the test only uses a small amount of radiation)
- rectal bleeding
- severe abdominal pain
- severe constipation or obstruction
Get immediate medical assistance if you experience any of these complications or side effects.
It is important that you understand all the risks of complications and side effects of the test, and what you or your doctor can do to avoid them. Make sure that your doctor is aware of all your concerns.
Before the test
It is important that you fully understand what the test involves beforehand. Ask your doctor to explain the risks, benefits, and drawbacks of the test, and don't be shy to probe further until you are comfortable with your doctor's responses.
It is important to tell your doctor if you are pregnant, have any allergies, or have recently had an upper digestive barium test (such as a barium swallow, where you swallow a barium mixture and X-rays are taken of your upper digestive system).
You will be put on a liquid diet about 1 to 3 days before the test to completely clean out your large intestine. You should drink large amounts of liquids and possibly take a few laxatives on the day before your test. You may also be asked to take a tap water enema to further clean out your intestines. These procedures are very important because fecal materials can interfere with the test results.
If you are taking any prescription or over-the-counter (non-prescription) medications, supplements, or herbal products, make sure you inform your doctor or pharmacist. Ask them whether it is necessary for you to stop taking any of these medications and products before the test. It is also important to tell them if you have allergies to certain medications or have certain medical conditions.
Plan to have someone drive you home after the test.