Barium follow-through and an MRI of the small bowel

print_iconLeaflet number: 589
Review due date: April 2018


What is a barium follow-through?

A barium follow-through means swallowing special solutions that allows us to look at the middle part of the bowel (the small bowel). The doctor in the clinic will have explained why you need to have this done.

What is an MRI of the small bowel?

This type of scan, known as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), creates images of the middle part of the bowel (the small bowel), using a powerful magnetic field and radio waves. It may be performed on the same day as a barium follow-through. The doctor in the clinic will have explained why you need to have this done.

What does it involve?

You will be asked to remove your clothing if it has any metal parts, and put on a gown. You will be given a large amount of barium solution and then methylcellulose solution to drink. You can add blackcurrant, orange or lemon flavour to the methylcellulose solution, which tastes of metal. Barium is a white substance that shows up the outline of the bowel on x-ray pictures. The methylcellulose solution helps distend the bowel so we can get better pictures.

As the liquid passes through the bowel, several x-ray pictures are taken with you lying on your tummy. Once the barium has reached the colon (usually within three hours), the doctor looks more closely at parts of the bowel with you lying on your back, presses on your tummy with a wooden spoon and gets you to roll into different positions. The doctor may also perform an ultrasound scan of the bowel if necessary.

You will be asked to hold your breath for the MRI scan. When the scanner is working, it makes a loud drumming noise. To reduce the noise you will be given some headphones to wear. We are able to play music through the headphones and this may help you relax, so please feel free to bring a CD with you.

How long will it take?

The test will normally start in the morning and be finished by lunchtime. However, if the methylcellulose and barium pass through the system slowly, the barium follow-through can occasionally take up the afternoon.

You will need to drink some water in addition just before the MRI scan. The MRI scan takes approximately four to eight minutes to perform.

What preparations are needed?

You should not eat or drink anything for four hours before the test.

If you have diabetes that requires treatment by tablets or injection, please telephone the diabetic nurse on 01271 322726, between 9am and 5pm (Monday to Friday) for advice.

Due to the strong magnetic field, metal items cannot be taken into the scan room. You will need to remove any jewellery, particularly body piercings (it is not usually necessary to remove wedding rings). Lockers are provided, though you may prefer to leave valuables, such as jewellery, at home.

For some scans you may be asked to change into a gown. However if you prefer, you may attend in your own clothes providing they are metal free, with no clips, zips or belt buckles.

How will I feel during the test?

Apart from the loud noise, you should feel nothing during the scan. However, because the MRI scanner is tunnel-like, some people may find it a little claustrophobic.

Are there any side-effects or after-effects?

After the test you may notice some discolouration of the motions and more frequent bowel actions for a day or so. Sometimes barium can cause constipation. To avoid this, drink plenty of fluids and eat normally after the test.

Are there any risks?

The small bowel follow-through uses x-rays to look at the barium in the small bowel. MRI scanning is one of the safest ways of examining the body; it does not use x-rays and has not been shown to have any harmful side effects. However, MRI scanning may not be suitable for some patients.

Important safety information

It is essential that you inform us before your scan if you:

  • have a heart pacemaker
  • have ever had any metal fragments in your eye
  • have surgical/aneurysm clips in your head or a programmable hydrocephalus shunt
  • are, or think you may be, pregnant
  • had surgery in the past eight weeks.

Follow up

The results of your MRI scan will be sent to the referring doctor who will arrange a follow-up appointment.

Further information

If you have any concerns or questions, please telephone the X-Ray Department on 01271 322435, between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday.


Posted in Patient Information Leaflets, X-ray/scan and tagged , , .

Last updated: October 23, 2019