When it comes to colon health, a simple physical exam or even an x-ray is not enough to detect any problems. This is why more specialized exams are needed in order to diagnose any problems and barium enema is one of them.
Barium enema is similar to an x-ray procedure in nature, but a barium solution is needed as a contrast substance in the colon. There are two types of barium enema: single column and air contrast or double contrast. In a single column barium enema, the colon is simply coated with a solution that is delivered via the rectum. In a double contrast enema, in addition to the barium solution air is added to the colon. This allows for a clearer x-ray image of the colon, leading to a more detailed picture. In both cases, doctors can be able to look for some abnormal growths inside the colon called polyps, which are the beginnings of colon cancer.
A barium enema consists of the following steps:
- The patient will usually be advised to be checked into the hospital overnight. He will be monitored and placed on a special diet that is mostly liquids and pureed foods like soups. You will mostly only be allowed to drink clear liquids such as water, tea, and coffee without milk or cream.
- After midnight, you will be instructed to fast. You can’t take any food and in most cases, even liquids are restricted.
- You will be given a laxative that will clear your colon of any content. During the course of the night, you will feel the urge to empty your colon, and this will continue until there are no more contents to excrete. The last excretions will mostly be clear liquid.
- Sedation is usually not necessary since the patient will most likely be instructed by the doctor to move around during the procedure.
- In the procedure room, you’ll be asked to lie on your side within the proximity of an x-ray machine. There will be an x-ray that is taken of your pre-barium colon to make sure it is clean.
- Through a tube, barium will be delivered to your colon. If you are having a double contrast barium enema, then air will be administered as well. Your doctor may ask you to turn and hold various positions to thoroughly coat the colon. You may feel a certain discomfort or the urge to empty your colon, but you should do your best to hold it in until the procedure is finished.
- The barium enema will take at around 20-40 minutes. After the session, most of the barium solution will be drained by the tube and you will then be allowed to use the bathroom to expel the extra barium and air.
After the exam you can expect the following:
- You can return to your diet almost immediately
- Your stool may be laced with white a few days after the procedure. These are traces of barium still being naturally removed from your body.
- Barium can cause constipation, so your doctor may recommend drinking a lot of fluids in the days following the barium enema.
- If you’re having a lot of difficulty passing air or stool, consult with your doctor.
- If your colon shows abnormalities from the barium enema, an excision of the polyps may be called for or additional tests may be required.