Test Details & Preparation
A barium swallow is a radiographic (X-ray) examination of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract, specifically the pharynx (back of mouth and throat) and the oesophagus (a hollow tube of muscle extending from below the tongue to the stomach). The pharynx and oesophagus are made visible on X-ray film by a liquid suspension called barium sulphate (barium). Barium highlights certain areas in the body to create a clearer picture. A barium swallow may be performed separately or as part of an upper gastrointestinal (UGI) series, which evaluates the oesophagus, stomach, and duodenum (first part of the small intestine).
X-rays use invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film. X-rays are made by using external radiation to produce images of the body, its organs, and other internal structures for diagnostic purposes. X-rays pass through body tissues onto specially-treated plates (similar to camera film) and a "negative" type picture is made.
Barium is a dry, white, chalky powder that is mixed with water to make a thick, milkshake-like drink. Barium is an X-ray absorber and appears white on X-ray film. When swallowed, a barium drink coats the inside walls of the pharynx and oesophagus so that the swallowing motion, inside wall lining, and size and shape of these organs is visible on X-ray. This process shows differences that might not be seen on standard X-rays. Barium is used only for diagnostic studies of the GI tract.
The use of barium with X-rays contributes to the visibility of various characteristics of the pharynx and oesophagus. Some abnormalities of the pharynx or oesophagus that may be detected by a barium swallow include tumours, ulcers, hernias, diverticula (pouches), strictures (narrowing), inflammation, and swallowing difficulties.
A barium swallow may be performed to diagnose structural or functional abnormalities of the pharynx and oesophagus. These abnormalities may include cancers of the head, neck, pharynx, and oesophagus tumours hiatal hernia structural problems enlarged veins, etc.