What is a Medical Enema?

Eric Stolze

A medical enema is a procedure during which a tube is used to insert a medication or contrasting solution into a patient’s rectum. Enemas can be used to clean a patient’s bowels or to relieve ulcerative colitis. A doctor may administer a barium enema to a patient before an x-ray imaging test of the patient’s colon and rectum.

A reusable enema kit.
A reusable enema kit.

People with constipation may use a medical enema containing sodium phosphate and sodium biphosphate. This type of enema usually relieves constipation and helps the body expel digestive waste that is in the colon. In some cases, individuals with impacted bowels use an enema to relieve pressure in the colon and pass fecal waste. A physician may have a patient use a sodium phosphate and sodium biphosphate enema to cleanse the colon before colon surgery prior to a colonoscopy examination or before an x-ray of the colon.

Epsom salt, which can be used to make an enema.
Epsom salt, which can be used to make an enema.

Sodium phosphate and sodium biphosphate enemas usually should not be administered if this type of enema was already used in the past seven days. In most cases, people with kidney disease or dehydration should not use an enema that contains sodium phosphate and sodium biphosphate. Doctors typically do not recommend a medical enema for individuals with imbalances of electrolytes such as sodium, phosphorus or potassium. This type of enema may cause side effects such as rectal bleeding, sores around the rectum or stomach pain.

Some patients with ulcerative colitis may receive a prescription for a hydrocortisone rectal enema. This type of medical enema typically reduces inflammation in a patient’s colon and rectum. Indigestion, rectal pain and an increased appetite have been reported by some users of hydrocortisone enemas.

A barium enema is a tube that contains a special contrasting solution. Health care professionals often administer this kind of medical enema before an x-ray imaging test of the colon and rectum. The contrasting solution enters the bowel, highlights areas inside the colon on an x-ray image and helps doctors identify abnormalities and disorders of the bowel. A physician may use the results of a colon x-ray to diagnose colon cancer or bowel conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease. In most cases, the contrasting solution is expelled with a patient’s normal bowel movements after an x-ray imaging test is completed.

Patients usually empty their bowels of all fecal waste before they receive a barium enema. An individual may use a laxative or a sodium phosphate and sodium biphosphate medical enema to cleanse the bowels before receiving a barium enema. X-ray images of the bowels are usually clearer after fecal wastes have been removed. A barium enema may cause a feeling of fullness in the bowel as well as abdominal cramping. Some barium enemas introduce air into the bowel with a contrasting solution in order to improve x-ray image quality.

A medical enema involves the insertion of medicine or contrasting solution into the rectum.
A medical enema involves the insertion of medicine or contrasting solution into the rectum.

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Discussion Comments


I've had two colonoscopy procedures and numerous x-rays and I think I prefer a medical enema to a laxative any day. Many people don't realize that enemas can be requested before medical testing instead of laxatives. Some doctors don't even mention enemas and have their patients use laxatives to clear their colon. Both methods work but laxatives have more side effects.


@ddljohn-- I had a barium enema recently for a floroscopy. There was some discomfort but it was definitely not as difficult as I had thought.

I had to take a laxative and use a saline enema before I was given the barium enema. The barium enema is quite a lot because it has to fill and expand the colon fully for the pictures to come out right. This was the main discomfort, the feeling of fullness in my bowels. But after the pictures were taken, everything else was a breeze.

I was told to use laxatives and enemas for a few days after the procedure though because a barium enema is known for causing constipation. I don't think you have anything to worry about. Just follow all of your doctor's directions, especially about the preparation.


Has anyone here had a barium colonic enema before? What was your experience like? I will be having one next week and I'm not looking forward to it. I've heard that it is uncomfortable.

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