What is barium enema?

Your doctor may order a barium enema to help diagnose colorectal problems or disease. This type of test allows a radiologist, a doctor with expertise in medical imaging, to get a clear look at your large intestine and see if there are any abnormalities, such as tumors or polyps.

Also called a lower GI (gastrointestinal) exam, the procedure involves insertion of a well-lubricated tube into the anus (an enema) and pouring of barium sulfate, a harmless chalky mineral that blocks X-rays, into the colon. The barium creates contrast and provides a clear image of the colon on a computer screen. As the barium moves into the intestine, the radiologist performs a number of X-rays to capture views of the colon.

While the procedure is not painful, it may be uncomfortable. You may be asked to move into different positions or to remain very still, and you may feel cramping, as well as the need to urinate or move your bowels. In addition to the barium mixture, the radiologist may deliver air through the tube, to further expand the colon and get even more clear images. This combination of barium plus air is called a double-contrast barium enema.

At the end of the procedure, most of the barium will come out through the tube and when you use the bathroom to empty your bowels. A few additional X-rays may be taken after you have used the bathroom.

What to expect from a barium enema

A barium enema is an outpatient procedure, which means you will go home the same day. It can be an exhausting, however, and you will need someone to drive you afterwards. Because there is radiation involved in this procedure, it is not safe for pregnant women.