When you swallow a piece of food, it travels through your mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. Sometimes, however, food doesn’t travel properly through the digestive system. This can result in nausea, stomach discomfort, and abdominal pain.
If you have these or other symptoms, your physician may recommend an upper gastrointestinal (GI) and small bowel series. This painless imaging test allows your doctor to visualize these areas and track down the problem.
Your physician uses the upper GI and small bowel test to detect abnormalities in the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. The test can pinpoint conditions ranging from slow intestinal movement to swallowing disorders and scarring in your digestive tract.
The upper GI and small bowel series mimic the flow of food from your mouth to your small intestine. You will be advised to stop eating for a certain time period before the test. You also should refrain from taking certain medications that may affect the test’s outcome, such as antacids, narcotics, or anticholinergics.
When you arrive, you will consume a drink with a thick, milkshake-like consistency that contains barium, a substance that will show up when taking X-rays. Always tell your physician if you think you may be allergic to radiologic contrast materials, such as iodine.
Your imaging technologist will take several images of you during the process. The images will show the barium moving through your digestive system.
For adults the entire time for the test varies between 20 minutes to four hours. During this time, X-rays may be taken in sitting or standing positions to obtain different views of your body. You will be instructed to hold your breath and remain as still as possible while the X-rays are taken.
After the test is over, drink plenty of fluids. This helps to keep the barium moving through your system. The barium can cause your stool to be lighter in color for 24 to 72 hours after the procedure. Unless your physician directs you otherwise, you can return to your normal diet following the test.
It may take your doctor several days to review and evaluate the results of your upper GI and small bowel test. Your physician will examine the scans to determine how well and how fast the barium traveled through your digestive system.
Abnormalities in your esophagus could pinpoint:
- achalasia (a disorder affecting esophagus’ ability to move food into stomach)
- diverticula (an abnormal pouch or sac in the esophagus)
- esophageal cancer
- narrowing of the esophagus
- hiatal hernia (part of the stomach sticks through an opening in the diaphragm, jutting up into the chest)
Abnormalities in the stomach could indicate:
- stomach cancer
- inflammation of the stomach lining
- pyloric stenosis (a condition in which the pylorus, which is the stomach’s opening to the small intestine, becomes narrowed)
Abnormalities in the small intestine can indicate:
- poor absorption
- inflammation in the small intestine
Because the test involves X-ray imaging, you are exposed to a small degree of radioactive material. However, the risk for adverse effects due to radiation exposure is minimal, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH, 2010).
If you have been experiencing stomach pains or difficulty with digestion, you may have trouble passing the barium through your digestive system. If you have not passed light-colored stools within two to three days after the procedure, this can indicate you have not passed the barium. Notify your physician.