What is a Barium Meal?

Eric Stolze

A barium meal, also known as an upper gastrointestinal (GI) series, is a medical imaging test of the upper portion of the gastrointestinal tract. This test generally provides x-ray images of the esophagus, stomach and first portion of the small intestine, known as the duodenum. During a barium meal test, a patient typically swallows a barium liquid that tends to show up very clearly on an x-ray and improves the quality of images from the upper portion of the gastrointestinal tract.

Barium sulfate is the contrast dye most often given during a barium meal.
Barium sulfate is the contrast dye most often given during a barium meal.

Physicians may have patients take a barium meal test to help with diagnosis of one or more medical conditions. Abnormal growths, ulcers and abnormal narrowing of the upper part of the digestive tract are visible on some x-ray images that are taken with a barium meal. In some cases, enlarged veins in the esophagus and hiatal hernias can be seen on x-rays that are highlighted with barium liquid. Tumors and muscle abnormalities in the esophagus, stomach or duodenum may be revealed with the help of an upper GI series.

A barium meal provides images of the esophagus, stomach, and the first portion of the small intestine.
A barium meal provides images of the esophagus, stomach, and the first portion of the small intestine.

Some doctors order x-rays with a barium meal for patients who have symptoms that suggest a disorder in the upper gastrointestinal tract. People with nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain may benefit from upper gastrointestinal series x-ray tests. Individuals with swallowing problems and unusual weight loss also undergo an upper gastrointestinal series in some instances. Gastrointestinal reflux is a medical condition that typically causes digestive juices to enter a patient’s esophagus, where they may cause tissue damage that an upper GI series may reveal.

A barium meal may be used to help doctors see an ulcer.
A barium meal may be used to help doctors see an ulcer.

During a barium meal, a patient typically stands in front of an x-ray machine and swallows a chalky-tasting barium solution that coats the inside of the patient’s upper digestive tract. The patient then lies down on an x-ray table in most cases, and a radiologist or technologist takes several x-ray images of the upper GI. A patient may be asked to change his position several times during the test to provide x-ray images from different angles. Some patients consume a barium solution that contains gas-forming crystals that evaporate and expand the digestive tract to provide better images. Patients may resume a normal diet after an upper gastrointestinal series in most instances, and they typically pass the barium solution in their stools for several days following the test.

In rare cases, patients may develop constipation or a bowel obstruction from barium solution used in a barium meal test. Patients who consume plenty of liquids after a test usually have a lower risk of developing bowel obstruction or constipation. Allergic reactions to barium solution may occur and are typically treated with antihistamines. Patients develop symptoms such as abdominal pain or fever in rare instances after a barium meal. Many patients may benefit from discussing unusual symptoms or side effects with their doctors.

Someone with nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain may require X-rays of their upper gastrointestinal system.
Someone with nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain may require X-rays of their upper gastrointestinal system.

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