Upper GI Series (Barium Meal)

A barium meal involves drinking liquid which includes barium content. Barium enables doctors to see images clearly as it is displayed on X-rays. A barium swallow or meal is used to allow doctors to view the stomach, oesophagus and the duodenum (part of the bowel) clearly on X-rays, as without the barium the structures would be dark on the X-ray and difficult to see properly. A barium meal is used to examine the stomach while a barium meal and swallow is used to examine the stomach, duodenum and oesophagus.

The barium meal test is usually done in the radiology section of a hospital. In most cases it is carried out as an outpatient treatment and the individual will go home shortly after the test has been completed.

Why would I need a barium meal?

A barium meal enables doctors to view your stomach and oesophagus in greater detail, which means that they are able to notice any abnormalities, damage or potential problems. A recommendation to have a barium meal may be given if your doctor believes there is a change you have ulcers, abnormal growths or obstructions in the oesophagus or stomach. A barium meal is also useful for patients who are experiencing difficulty swallowing (known as dysphagia).

Preparing for a barium meal

A barium meal test is performed by a radiographer who will discuss the procedure with you before you have the test and can give answers to your questions. Before the assessment you should avoid eating for a phase of time (usually around 4 hours). This is so that your small bowel and stomach will be empty, which makes the images clearer. If your stomach is not empty the images may not be clear enough for doctors to make a diagnosis and the test may have to be repeated.

It is vital that you inform the radiographer about any medication you are taking, if you have any allergies or suffer from an illness before they start the test. If you are currently on medication, you will be required to miss your morning dose on the day of the analysis and take your medication with you to show your radiologist. If you think there is the possibility that you are pregnant it is important to tell the radiographer, as the examination is not advisable for pregnant women.

Diabetics will receive special instructions to prepare for the examination to make sure that blood sugar levels are under control. Should you have any queries make sure to get in touch with the hospital in advance.

What does the procedure involve?

The barium meal is a very short test and usually only takes around 15 minutes. Before you are taken to the X-ray room for the assessment you will need to take off your clothing and put on a hospital gown. Once you are prepared you are required to drink a white liquid which contains barium. The drink is not particularly pleasant and may taste a little chalky but the test will not take long. You will be advised to sip the drink, hold it in your mouth and swallow at certain times by the radiographer and you will then be positioned before an X-ray machine.

There is a chance that you will also need to eat a spoonful of granules and then take some liquid, to allow the granules to dissolve in the stomach. In some cases an injection is given to make the muscles relax and the images look clearer. The X-ray images will show up on a monitor.

What happens after the test?

The barium meal test should not be uncomfortable or painful and you should be allowed to return home straight after. However, those given a muscle relaxant should wait at least half an hour before driving. When you get home you should try to take in a sufficient amount of fluids and eat a healthy diet rich in high-fibre foods to maintain bowel movement. The results of the examination will be given to your doctor and this can take up to two weeks.

Are there any risks involved?

As with all tests and procedures there are risks associated with the barium meal test. However, the risk is very low and the test is considered to be very safe. Radiation exposure will occur but only in a very small quantity, with the level equating to the level you would be exposed to in the natural environment over the course of 12 months. It is not advisable for pregnant women to have a barium meal and alternative tests are usually recommended, as radiation can be a source of harm to unborn babies.

Side-effects of a barium meal are usually very mild and include bloating and constipation. If you have a muscle relaxant this can bring about blurred vision, difficulty passing urine and a dry mouth.

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