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Colorectal Cancer Health Center

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Air Contrast Barium Enema

An air contrast barium enema is an imaging test used to obtain a visual picture of the colon. It has historically been used in conjunction with the flexible sigmoidoscopy. With advances in technology, air contrast barium enemas are being used less often. Instead, colonoscopies are more commonly used since they are able to detect smaller polyps and colorectal cancers that might be missed by a barium enema. However, air contrast barium enema can be useful to detect inflammatory conditions of the colon, such as diverticulitis.

How Do I Prepare for the Air Contrast Barium Enema?

For an air contrast barium enema, your doctor will give you instructions on what you should and should not eat or drink in the days before the test. Generally, your diet will be adjusted to include more liquid and less solids. Occasionally, a full liquid diet may be recommended. It is important to follow these instructions because the colon needs to be empty for the test to be effective. If necessary, the doctor also may recommend a laxative or enema to cleanse the colon before the test.

What Happens on the Day of an Air Contrast Barium Enema

On the day of the air contrast barium enema, you will be brought into the testing room and positioned on a table.

Behind you will be a specialized X-ray machine that allows video images of the body to be seen on a monitor. The X-ray technician will probably first take a regular X-ray of your abdomen. After that, he or she will insert a lubricated tube into your rectum. The tube is connected to a bag of barium sulfate solution, which is then carefully and slowly pumped through your intestine.

After the barium passes through the intestine, air will then be pumped into it. Using the barium, the technician is able to get a clear picture of the lining of the intestine from multiple angles. For some of these angles, you will be asked to move around in order to coat all parts of the colon. Once you are in the correct position, it is important to remain still and hold your breath while the X-rays are being taken.

As the test is being performed, it is common to feel slight cramping and a strong urge to have a bowel movement. Taking deep breaths can help you relax and may alleviate this feeling.

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