A barium enema (lower GI series) is an X–ray procedure that uses barium sulfate and air to outline the lining of the colon and rectum. The procedure begins with an enema containing barium sulfate, a chalky chemical that appears white on X–ray film.
The enema fluid is briefly held inside the intestine while a series of X–rays is taken. In these X–rays, the white barium fluid allows some intestinal abnormalities to appear as dark silhouettes and patterns along the intestinal lining. Air can also be pumped into the intestine during this procedure to help sharpen the outline of the intestinal wall.
This test takes about 45 minutes and it can be performed as an outpatient procedure, usually in the X–ray department of a hospital. Although the X–rays themselves are painless, the enema may cause some slight discomfort.
Because an empty colon and rectum give the best X–ray results, your doctor will give you instructions about using laxatives and/or enemas before the procedure. Your doctor will also tell you how to modify your diet, when to fast or to drink liquids.
- You will be asked to remove your clothing and to dress in a hospital gown.
- You will lie on your side on a X–ray table and you will be given an enema of barium fluid through a tube inserted into your rectum.
- As the barium fluid flows into your intestines, you may feel a little discomfort, pressure, or the urge to move your bowels.
- While you hold the fluid inside your bowel, the X–ray technician will take a series of pictures.
- To allow the barium fluid to flow into different parts of your bowel, you will be asked to change your position on the table.
- Once the first series of X–rays is done, you will be helped to a nearby bathroom (or given a bedpan) to pass the barium fluid from your bowels.
- You will then have a second series of X–rays, where air will be gently pumped into your rectum. This air, together with the thin film of barium fluid still remaining in your intestines, will help to enhance the images of your intestinal lining.
Your barium enema X–rays will be read by a radiologist, who will give the results to your doctor. The X–ray facility will tell you when to call your doctor for the radiologist’s report.
To help clear the remaining barium fluid from your bowel, your doctor will give you instructions about drinking water, taking laxatives, or using an enema. For a few days, while the barium clears, you will notice that your stools are an unusually light color.
- Tumors of the colon and rectum.
- Polyps (abnormal growths that are often attached to the intestinal lining by a stalk).
- Colorectal cancer.
- Ulcerative colitis
The barium enema is a safe X–ray examination. Although there is a risk of intestinal blockage if the barium fluid is not cleared from your bowel, this can be prevented by following your doctor’s directions for bowel cleansing after the procedure.