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What Is a Small Bowel Follow-Through?

By Christina Edwards
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A small bowel follow-through is a diagnostic procedure in which medical professionals take x-rays of a patient's small bowel, or small intestine. This is usually done to determine the cause of certain gastrointestinal problems. A patient is typically advised not to eat or drink before this procedure, and he is usually given a contrasting agent to drink right before hand. X-rays are then taken of the small intestine at timed intervals as the barium passes through the small bowel. This test can take up to several hours to complete, depending on how fast the barium travels through the bowels.

Sometimes referred to as a small bowels series, a small bowel follow-through is a diagnostic procedure in which doctors observe how a contrasting agent passes through the small intestine. This is typically done with the help of x-rays. Certain gastrointestinal problems like intestinal blockage and tumors in the small intestine can often be diagnosed with the help of this procedure.

Beginning the night before a small bowel follow-through, patients are usually not allowed to eat or drink anything. Some doctors will even forbid gum chewing the day of the procedure, since the presence of anything in the bowels can cause distorted images. Patients who must take daily pills, however, can usually do so by swallowing them with a small amount of water.

Before a small bowel follow-through, a patient is usually asked to change into a hospital gown, or a comfortable sweat suit with no metal on it. A preliminary x-ray of the bowels will then usually be taken. This x-ray gives medical experts something to compare the following x-rays to.

The patient is also then required to drink a barium sulfate suspension. This milky white liquid is a metallic compound dissolved in water. Since it contains heavy metal particles, it is very visible in x-rays. A patient will usually begin to ingest this suspension roughly an hour or two before the procedure.

After the barium sulfate suspension has been swallowed, an x-ray technician will then begin to take x-rays of the patient's small intestine. Several x-rays are usually taken, and they are often spaced several minutes apart. This test can take anywhere from two hours to several hours to complete, and the length of the test is determined by the speed that the barium passes through a person's bowels.

After a small bowel follow-through, a patient is able to eat. Since constipation is one of the most common side effects of barium sulfate, patients are also usually encouraged to drink several glasses of water. A doctor will usually have the results of a small bowel follow-through within a day or two.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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