In a barium swallow the patient swallows a variety of liquids and foods mixed with barium, a substance that allows the radiologist and speech pathologist to see the swallowing process.
While the patient is swallowing, the radiologist takes video X-rays of the mouth and throat that show how food passes from the mouth through the throat and into the esophagus. If barium enters the windpipe (aspiration), it shows that the patient is at risk for developing lung infections.
During the test, a speech pathologist may ask patients to alter their head position, such as tucking the chin, or to try various techniques, such as holding their breath, to improve swallowing. No preparation is required for this painless test, which takes about 10-15 minutes.
The modified barium swallow is given to:
- Patients with difficulty swallowing liquid, food, or medications
- Stroke patients with difficulty swallowing and those with coughing, choking, or throat clearing during meals
- Patients with a history of upper respiratory infections, unexplained fevers (including low-grade fever), or aspiration pneumonia
- Patients who feel a fullness in their throat or pain upon swallowing
- Patients with a history of swallowing difficulty who have Parkinson's Disease, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis or ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease)
- Patients with a tracheotomy who might be able to tolerate oral feedings or dietary changes
- Patients receiving nutrition with a gastronomy tube or nasogastric tube, to determine if they can tolerate oral feedings