People who seem to be suffering from esophageal cancer must undergo certain tests and exams which will confirm or rule out the disease. Most of them turn to their doctors complaining about difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), pain while swallowing (odynophagia) and loss of appetite and/or weight.
After performing a physical exam and certain blood tests, doctors opt for more complex exams, first of which is a barium swallow.
Barium Swallow - the Principle
A barium swallow is one of many medical imaging procedures performed in order to visualize organs of the upper gastrointestinal tract. It is highly efficient procedure when it comes to diagnosing many conditions affecting the esophagus as well as the upper portion of the stomach.
Barium sulfate is a chemical compound that can be easily seen while performing X-ray exam. During the process of swallowing, barium sulfate coats the entire surface of the esophagus and fills it completely. If, at the same time, the doctor performs an X-ray exam, he/she will be able to visualize the shape of the organ and potential structural abnormalities. Better visualization of the esophagus is achieved if barium sulfate is used together with baking soda.
It is essential never to perform a barium swallow in case there is perforation of any part of the gastrointestinal tract. In that case barium may leak out of the digestive tract and cause severe damage to nearby tissues.
Finally, because the exam includes exposure to X-rays ( radiation) some patients are not suitable candidates for this type of exam. This particularly refers to pregnant women who must never be exposed to radiation because of its detrimental effects on the developing fetus.
Barium Swallow - the Very Procedure
The exam starts with drinking of barium sulfate. It is essential to synchronize drinking and fluoroscopy because barium quickly moves through the esophagus and enters the stomach. This is the reason why patients are asked to swallow barium a number of times. They also take different body positions during the exam in order for all parts of the esophagus to be suitably examined. So, patients may stand, be in a lateral or oblique position.
Barium Swallow, Esophageal Cancer and Other Esophageal Diseases
Even though a barium swallow may visualize structural damage that may point to the presence of esophageal cancer, it is not sensitive enough to definitively confirm the disease. Patients usually require more complex tests and exams such as CT scan, MRI of the chest, endoscopy and biopsy of suspicious tissue.
Apart from being of great help when it comes to diagnosing esophageal cancer, a barium swallow is also an excellent procedure for confirming other esophageal diseases such as Zenker's diverticulum, achalasia, tracheoesophageal fistula, Schatzki ring, hiatus hernia, obstructions of the esophagus and esophageal stenosis.