barium enema

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Barium Enema



A barium enema, also known as a lower GI (gastrointestinal) exam, is a test that uses x-ray examination to view the large intestine. There are two types of this test: the single-contrast technique where barium sulfate is injected into the rectum in order to gain a profile view of the large intestine; and the double-contrast (or "air contrast") technique where air is inserted into the rectum.


A barium enema may be performed for a variety of reasons, including to aid in the diagnosis of colon and rectal cancer (or colorectal cancer), and inflammatory disease. Detection of polyps (a benign growth in the tissue lining of the colon and rectum), diverticula (a pouch pushing out from the colon), and structural changes in the large intestine can also be established with this test. The double-contrast barium enema is the best method for detecting small tumors (such as polyps), early inflammatory disease, and bleeding caused by ulcers.
The decision to perform a barium enema is based on a person's history of altered bowel habits. These can include diarrhea, constipation, any lower abdominal pain they are currently exhibiting, blood, mucus, or pus in their stools. It is also recommended that this exam be used every five to 10 years to screen healthy people for colorectal cancer, the second most deadly type of tumor in the United States. Those who have a close relative with colorectal cancer or have had a precancerous polyp are considered to be at an increased risk for the disease and should be screened more frequently to look for abnormalities.


While barium enema is an effective screening method in the detection of symptoms and may lead to a timely diagnosis of several diseases, it is not the only method to do this. As of 1997, some studies have shown that the colonoscopy procedure performed by experienced gastroenterologists is a more accurate initial diagnostic tool for detecting early signs of colorectal cancer. A colonoscopy is the most accurate way for the physician to examine the entire colon and rectum for polyps. If abnormalities are seen at this time the procedure is accompanied by a biopsy. Some physicians use sigmoidoscopy plus a barium enema instead of colonoscopy.

Key terms

Barium sulfate — A barium compound used during a barium enema to block the passage of x rays during the exam.
Bowel lumen — The space within the intestine.
Colonoscopy — An examination of the upper portion of the rectum performed with a colonoscope or elongated speculum.
Diverticula — A diverticulum of the colon is a sac or pouch in the colon walls which is usually asymptomatic (without symptoms) but may cause difficulty if it becomes inflamed.
Diverticulitis — A condition of the diverticulum of the intestinal tract, especially in the colon, where inflammation may cause distended sacs extending from the colon and pain.
Proctosigmoidoscopy — A visual examination of the rectum and sigmoid colon using a sigmoidoscope.
Ulcerative colitis — An ulceration or erosion of the mucosa of the colon.


To begin a barium enema, the patient will lie with their back down on a tilting radiographic table in order to have x rays of the abdomen taken. After being assisted to a different position, a well-lubricated rectal tube is inserted through the anus. This tube allows the physician or assistant to slowly administer the barium into the intestine. While this filling process is closely monitored, it is important for the patient to keep the anus tightly contracted against the rectal tube to help maintain its position and prevent the barium from leaking. This step is emphasized to the patient due to the inaccuracy that may be caused if the barium leaks. A rectal balloon may also be inflated to help retain the barium. The table may be tilted or the patient moved to a different position to aid in the filling process.
As the barium fills the intestine, x rays of the abdomen are taken to distinguish significant findings.There are many ways to perform a barium enema. One way is that shortly after filling, the rectal tube is removed and the patient expels as much of the barium as possible. Upon completing this, an additional x ray is taken, and a double-contrast enema may follow. If this is done immediately, a thin film of barium will remain in the intestine, and air is then slowly injected to expand the bowel lumen. Sometimes no x rays will be taken until after the air is injected.


In order to conduct the most accurate barium enema test, the patient must follow a prescribed diet and bowel preparation instructions prior to the test. This preparation commonly includes restricted intake of diary products and a liquid diet for 24 hours prior to the test, in addition to drinking large amounts of water or clear liquids 12-24 hours before the test. Patients may also be given laxatives, and asked to give themselves a cleansing enema.
In addition to the prescribed diet and bowel preparation prior to the test, the patient can expect the following during a barium enema:
  • They will be well draped with a gown as they are secured to a tilting x-ray table.
  • As the barium or air is injected into the intestine, they may experience cramping pains or the urge to defecate.
  • The patient will be instructed to take slow, deep breaths through the mouth to ease any discomfort.


Patients should follow several steps immediately after undergoing a barium enema, including:
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help counteract the dehydrating effects of bowel preparation and the test.
  • Take time to rest. A barium enema and the bowel preparation taken before it can be exhausting.
  • A cleansing enema may be given to eliminate any remaining barium. Lightly colored stools will be prevalent for the next 24-72 hours following the test.


While a barium enema is considered a safe screening test used on a routine basis, it can cause complications in certain people. The following indications should be kept in mind before a barium enema is performed:
  • Those who have a rapid heart rate, severe ulcerative colitis, toxic megacolon, or a presumed perforation in the intestine should not undergo a barium enema.
  • The test can be cautiously performed if the patient has a blocked intestine, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, or severe bloody diarrhea.
  • Complications that may be caused by the test include perforation of the colon, water intoxication, barium granulomas (inflamed nodules), and allergic reaction. These are all very rare.

Normal results

When the patient undergoes a single-contrast enema, their intestine is steadily filled with barium to differentiate the colon's markings. A normal result displays uniform filling of the colon. As the barium is expelled, the intestinal walls collapse. A normal result on the x ray after defecation will show the intestinal lining as having a standard, feathery appearance.
Accordingly, the double-contrast enema expands the intestine which is already lined with a thin layer of barium, but with air to display a detailed image of the mucosal pattern. Varying positions taken by the patient allow the barium to collect on the dependent walls of the intestine by way of gravity.

Abnormal results

A barium enema allows abnormalities to appear on an x ray that may aid in the diagnosis of several different conditions. Although most colon cancers occur in the rectosigmoid region, or upper part of the rectum and adjoining portion of the sigmoid colon, and are better detected with a different test called a proctosigmoidoscopy, an enema can identify other early signs of cancer.
Identification of polyps, diverticulosis, inflammatory disease, such as diverticulitis and ulcerative colitis is attainable through a barium x ray. Structural changes in the intestine, gastroenteritis, and some cases of acute appendicitis may also be apparent by viewing this x ray.



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Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

bar·i·um en·e·ma (BE),

a type of contrast enema; administration of barium sulfate suspension, a radiopaque medium, for radiographic and fluoroscopic study of the lower intestinal tract.
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012

barium enema

A radiographic study in which a solution containing barium sulfate is administered into the rectum in order to visualize the lower intestinal tract.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

barium enema

Examination of the large intestine by instilling barium sulfate, either alone (single-contrast) or with air (double contrast) via the rectum until the colon is filled; any regional or zonal defects in the “column” of barium may indicate inflammation, polyps or tumours; visible pouches of barium can indicate diverticuli.
Patients with history of altered bowel habits, lower abdominal pain or passage of blood, mucus or pus in the stool.

Abnormal in
Diverticulitis, chronic ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, polyps, intussusception, gastroenteritis, appendicitis.
Tachycardia, ulcerative colitis, toxic megacolon, suspected perforation of colon.
Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.

barium enema

Lower GI series Imaging Examination of the large intestine, by instilling barium sulfate, either alone–single-contrast, or with air–double contrast, per rectum until the colon is filled; any regional or zonal defects in the 'column' of barium may indicate inflammation, polyps, or tumors; visible pouches of barium can indicate diverticuli Indications Pts with Hx of altered bowel habits, lower abdominal pain, or passage of blood, mucus, or pus in the stool; abnormal in CA, diverticulitis, chronic ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, polyps, intussusception, gastroenteritis, stenosis, irritable colon, vascular injury, rarely in acute appendicitis Contraindications Tachycardia, ulcerative colitis, toxic megacolon, suspected perforation of colon
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

bar·i·um en·e·ma

(BE) (bar'ē-ŭm en'ĕ-mă)
A type of contrast enema; administration of barium, a radiopaque medium, for radiographic and fluoroscopic study of the lower intestinal tract. For maximal effectiveness, the colon is usually cleared of fecal material with a cathartic before the procedure.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012

barium enema

The instillation of a liquid paste of barium sulphate into the rectum and lower colon for the purposes of contrast X-ray examination.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005