Barium enema

A barium enema is a test that helps to highlight the large bowel so it can be clearly seen on an X-ray.

During the test, a white liquid called barium is passed into your bowel through your bottom.

A barium enema may be requested by any doctor who thinks you might have a problem with your bowel, including your GP.

The test will usually be carried out at a hospital radiology department by a radiologist or radiographer.

When barium enemas are used

Nowadays, barium enemas aren't carried out very often, as alternative tests such as a colonoscopy or CT scan are usually preferred.

But a barium enema can sometimes be a useful way of finding the cause of problems like blood in your stools or a constant change in your bowel habits.

Conditions that can be detected during a barium enema include:

Preparing for a barium enema

To ensure the X-ray images taken during a barium enema are clear, your bowel must be empty before the test.

The hospital should send you instructions on what you need to do to prepare.

You'll normally be asked to:

It's usually a good idea to stay at home the day before the test, as the laxative medication will make you go to the toilet frequently.

Contact the hospital as soon as you receive your appointment letter if you have diabetes or are pregnant (or think you could be pregnant).

Barium enemas aren't done during pregnancy because the X-rays may harm the baby.

If you have diabetes, you'll need to follow special instructions to ensure your blood sugar level is kept under control.

Having a barium enema

When you arrive at hospital, you'll be asked to change into a hospital gown.

You can take someone with you to the hospital, but they're not usually allowed into the X-ray room.

During the test:

The whole process usually takes around 30 to 45 minutes.

What happens after a barium enema

When the test is finished, the tube will be removed from your bottom and you can go to the toilet to empty your bowels.

You should be able to go home shortly afterwards, although it's a good idea to take things easy for a few hours before returning to your normal activities.

If you had a Buscopan injection, your vision may be blurry for a short while afterwards, so you won't be able to drive. It's best to arrange for someone to drive you home.

When you get home:

The X-ray images taken during the test will be analysed by a specialist. A report will be sent to the doctor who referred you for the test and you can discuss the results at your next appointment.

Does a barium enema hurt?

Having a barium enema may be a bit embarrassing and unpleasant, but it shouldn't be painful.

You'll probably feel uncomfortable when the air is pumped into your bowel during the test, similar to the feeling of having trapped wind.

You may have some bloating, wind or stomach cramps for a short while afterwards.

Are there any risks or side effects?

A barium enema is generally a very safe procedure, although there a few risks and side effects that you should be aware of.

These include:

Your doctor can help you weigh up the risks of the procedure against the benefits of identifying any problem in your bowel.

Page last reviewed: 13 May 2022
Next review due: 13 May 2025