What is an upper gastrointestinal exam?
An upper gastrointestinal exam (also called “upper GI”) is a radiology procedure that uses real-time X-ray fluoroscopy to produce images of the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. By using fluoroscopic technique, your doctor can visualize how these organs move and function together, while looking for any abnormalities. This exam requires that you drink barium contrast material as a special X-ray camera called a fluoroscope captures the images. More basic information on fluoroscopy is available in the Fluoroscopy section.
An upper GI test can be used to help doctors diagnose digestive problems of the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. For example, if you suffer from heartburn, the upper GI can help your doctor determine if the cause of your symptoms is due to acid reflux. An upper GI exam can help diagnose:
- Upper GI tract inflammation, scars, or blockage
- Hiatal hernia
- Anatomic abnormalities or muscular abnormalities
Some symptoms that may be present due to upper GI tract disease may include:
- Swallowing difficulty
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Heartburn, acid reflux, or persistent indigestion
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blood in the stool or black tarry stool
- Upper GI is a painless, safe, and non-invasive way to evaluate problems with the upper GI tract.
- The contrast used in the upper GI exam, barium sulfate, is well tolerated. Adverse or allergic reactions are rare.
- The amount of radiation used in an upper GI is unlikely to increase your risk of cancer, and no radiation remains in your body after the exam.
- Some patients may be allergic to the flavoring of the barium sulfate drink used during some exams. If you have a history of allergy to chocolate, berries, or citrus fruits, be sure to tell your technologist before the test.
- While allergic reactions to barium sulfate are rare, this does occasionally happen. See Fluoroscopy for more information barium sulfate contrast.
- If you have a known problem with intestinal obstruction or stricture, barium sulfate may worsen this condition and lead to complete blockage. Upper GI should not be used in patients with these issues.
- Fluoroscopy uses a low dose of radiation because it uses X-ray technology, but the benefit of an accurate diagnosis far outweighs the risk. Please refer to the section Fluoroscopy for more information on the risk of radiation used in this exam.
- Pregnant women should be aware of the risk of radiation to the developing baby. For more details, please refer to the section What if I am pregnant? Can I still have fluoroscopy?
- An upper GI is typically done in an ARA imaging center and takes about 15-20 minutes.
- You may be asked to change into a gown and remove all jewelry, belts, or any other clothing containing metal.
- You will be placed on an exam table that tilts to facilitate the movement of contrast liquid in your GI tract.
- You will be asked to drink barium sulfate contrast liquid. This has a chalky taste but is not unpleasant.
- As you drink the barium, a special X-ray camera will capture real-time moving images (fluoroscopy) for the radiologist or technologist to view.
- To ensure the barium coats all the areas of the upper GI tract, the person performing the exam may press on your stomach, which may cause discomfort. The exam table may also be tilted to help move barium to different parts of your upper GI tract.
- For 24 to 48 hours after your exam, your bowel movements may look gray or white due to the barium. Barium may also cause temporary constipation, which can be treated by an over-the-counter laxative.
- Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing. You may want to leave all jewelry, piercings, and any other metal objects at home.
- You will be asked not to eat or drink for several hours prior to the upper GI exam. In most cases, you should take all your medications as usual. Ask your doctor for specific directions about your daily medications.
- You might be advised not to smoke or chew gum prior to the exam.
- Be sure to tell your radiologist about any illness or allergies you may have, especially if you have allergies to iodine.
- Inform your radiologist if you are pregnant. Pregnant women should not receive IV contrast or undergo X-ray unless the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. However, depending on the circumstances, both the medical provider and patient may decide it is necessary to go ahead with the MBS. For more details, please refer to the section What if I am pregnant? Can I still have fluoroscopy?
A radiologist, a physician specifically trained to interpret radiological examinations, will analyze the images and send a signed report to the provider who referred you to ARA. The physician will then share the results with you.