31 January 2020
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A barium enema is a special type of X-ray test used to examine the large bowel (colon and rectum), which doesn't show up well on normal X-rays. Coating the bowel with barium, a white liquid, highlights it on X-rays. The test can help look for signs of inflammation, disease or cancer.
Your doctor may recommend you have a barium enema if you experience changes in your bowel habits, blood in your stools, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, or anaemia.
It is often conducted as an outpatient procedure in the radiology or out-patient department. Alternatives to this test may include a colonoscopy, a virtual colonoscopy and a sigmoidoscopy.
The test helps doctors detect any inflammation, disease or cancer in your bowel.
Pregnant women are advised not to have a barium enema, unless there is an urgent medical need, due to the risk of radiation.
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You will have a formal consultation with a healthcare professional. During this time you will be able to explain your medical history, symptoms and raise any concerns that you might have.
We will also discuss with you whether any further diagnostic tests, such as scans or blood tests, are needed. Any additional costs will be discussed before further tests are carried out.
Although this is a relatively straight forward process, you may be required not to eat solid foods or certain drinks for a period of time before your procedure. You may see this referred to as 'starve times', and we will advise you of these before your visit.
Your treatment may be adapted to meet your individual needs, so it’s important to follow your consultant’s advice. It's natural to feel anxious before hospital treatment, but knowing what to expect can help. Please raise any concerns or questions with your consultants or nurse so you feel comfortable and in control.
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Our dedicated team will also give you tailored advice to follow in the run up to your visit.
We understand that having an examination can potentially be a time of anxiety and worry. Our experienced and caring medical staff will be there for you, holding your hand, every step of the way.
The test usually takes up to 20 minutes. We may give you an injection to help relax the muscles of your bowel wall, and make the examination easier to tolerate. The muscle relaxant may be given routinely at the start of the procedure, or only if bowel spasm is seen during the examination.
During the procedure, a soft plastic tube is gently passed into your rectum. Liquid barium will flow through the tube to coat the bowel wall. Air may be passed through the tube to expand the bowel and make the bowel wall easier to see. You may feel as if you need to go to the toilet. It’s important to try and hold the barium fluid and air in by keeping the muscles of your bottom very tight.
Images of your bowel will be displayed on a TV screen. You may be moved into different positions to help the barium flow and to see as much of the bowel as possible. The X-ray table will slowly tilt to get you into position.
Several X-ray images will be taken with you in different positions: some with you lying on your side and some with you upright. When sufficient X-rays have been taken, the tube will be removed. You will be allowed to leave the X-ray room and go to the toilet.
The examination is routinely performed as an outpatient procedure.
A report will be sent to the doctor who requested your test. The report can take several days to reach your doctor. Before you go home, please ask you radiographer when you can expect to get your results.
You may experience some discomfort: some patients may feel cramp-like pains for a short while afterwards. Muscle relaxants can temporarily blur your eyesight, but your vision should improve after 30 minutes.
You may feel bloated for a short while after having a barium enema. You may also feel constipated for a few days and need to take mild laxatives.
On rare occasions, complications following a barium enema can occur. There is a small chance the colon may be damaged or perforated during the procedure. This can lead to bleeding and infection, which may require treatment with medicines or surgery.
If you experience bleeding, continuing abdominal pains or bloating – call us straight away. These could indicate that your colon has been damaged or perforated during the procedure. Your consultant will talk to you about the possible risks and complications of having this procedure and how they apply to you.
If you have any questions or concerns, we're here to help.
We are committed to delivering excellent individual care and customer service across our network of hospitals, clinics and specialist care centres around the UK. Our dedicated and highly trained team aim to achieve consistently excellent results. For us it's more than just treating patients, it's about looking after people.
The treatment described on this page may be adapted to meet your individual needs, so it's important to follow your healthcare professional's advice and raise any questions that you may have with them.
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