Barium enema

Introduction

A barium enema is a special type of X-ray used to examine the large bowel (colon and rectum) for problems such as growths (polyps), inflammation (colitis), and tumours.

Normal X-rays do not provide clear images of the bowel, so a substance called barium sulphate is used to produce a clearer picture. Barium sulphate is a fine, white, odourless and non-toxic powder that, in a liquid form, coats the inside of the bowel, making it easier to see on X-rays.

How is it given?

During a barium enema the liquid barium sulphate is passed into your bowel through a small soft tube inserted into your rectum (back passage). The liquid coats the wall of your bowel. At the same time air is usually pumped through the tube to expand the large bowel. This helps to make the images as clear as possible.

If the upper gastrointestinal tract (oesophagus, stomach and small intestine) needs to be investigated, the barium sulphate can be given as a drink in a procedure known as a barium meal or barium swallow. See diagnostic endoscopy of the stomach for more information.

A barium enema and the process of taking X-ray images of the bowel takes around 15 to 30 minutes to complete. It should not be not painful but can cause some discomfort and bloating, mainly due to the large bowel stretching when the air is pumped in.

The X-ray images taken are studied and reported on by a radiologist after the appointment. A radiologist is a doctor specially trained to carry out examinations and interpret medical images, such as X-rays. A report is given to the referring doctor, usually within 14 days.

Glossary

Enema
An enema is an injection of fluid into the large intestine / colon to empty the bowel. It can also be used to make the bowels show up more clearly in an X-ray
X-ray
An X-ray is a painless way of producing pictures of inside the body using radiation
Stomach
The sac-like organ of the digestive system. It helps digest food by churning it and mixing it with acids to break it down into smaller pieces
Last updated: 04 October 2011

Complications of a barium enema

A bowel perforation (tear) is a serious complication. However, it is extremely rare and there is only a risk of it occurring if you have a severely inflamed colon.

Last updated: 04 October 2011