What Is An Esophagram Test?

Submitted on March 27, 2012

An esophagram test is an inspection of the esophagus. The test is conducted as a part of a series of tests carried out on the upper and the middle regions of the GI tract. This test is performed using fluoroscopy, barium, and x-rays. Since barium is a contrast material, it is used as a marker. The patient is asked to swallow the barium with water, and as the barium travels down the esophageal passage, the path is mapped.

The esophagus is the tube that links the throat to the stomach. The primary function of the esophagus is the transport of food that has been swallowed by the mouth into the stomach. It is possible that, over time, the esophagus may develop some infection or damage that could lead to the blockage of food that is passing through. Most commonly, it is found that the esophagus tends to gradually constrict when it is affected by one or more medical conditions. This leads to the individual's diminished ability to swallow, particularly if the food is heavy and difficult to swallow in any case. Such individuals may wish to shift to a more liquid based diet as they find this easier to swallow. It should be understood that the most common cause of esophagus problems is cancer. Thus one must go for an esophagram test to ensure that this is not the case.

The esophagram test is also known as a barium swallow x-ray test. This is because it is conducted with the use of a contrast material known as barium. Contrast materials are used in a number of different medical imaging tests. These materials are used so that they mark out the lining of various hollow organs or tubes in the body. When the lining is clearly marked, it becomes easier for the doctor to see any abnormalities which may appear as bumps or depressions in the wall of the organ that is being scanned. The esophagram test involves the use of this type of contrast followed by an imaging scan that is conducted of the area. This imaging scan is often an x-ray although CT scans may also be used.

Esophagram Test Upper GI and Endoscopy Test

The term esophagram test upper GI indicates that this test is being conducted on the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract. This does not change the scope of the test whatsoever. An esophagram test may be followed by an endoscopy test. An endoscopy test involves the use of a flexible scope that is placed inside the body to visually examine various different parts of the body. This visual examination is done by looking at images generated on a computer or television screen. In many cases, an esophagram test is followed by an endoscopy test when there is some obvious abnormality that has been found. The advantage of an endoscopy test is that the scope can be used to collect a biopsy sample of the affected tissue. However, since the endoscopy is invasive, most doctors initially prefer to use the esophagram test to determine if there is some problem before going in for an endoscopy to further understand the nature of the condition.

Prior to an upper GI scan, one must not consume food for at least four hours. It is preferable that the individual conduct the test on an empty stomach so that there is no chance of any reflux of food into the esophagus. For this reason, most patients undergoing esophagram tests do so in the morning so that they can consume food, either solid or liquid, immediately after the test has been completed. The esophagram test itself is fairly routine and will not provide any irritation to the patient. The barium contrast itself tastes extremely mild and this should not bother the individual either. It is only the endoscopy test that is uncomfortable. An esophagram test usually takes 15 minutes to be performed. However, the patient will need to be drinking the barium laced contrast fluid for up to an hour before the test. In some cases, the drinking process is conducted live so that the flow of water through the esophagus can be captured for analysis.


In some cases, a few gas producing crystals are added to the barium before the patient is made to swallow it. As the barium moves, it is tracked through the esophagus, stomach, and a portion of the small intestines. While the movement of the barium solution is being tracked on a video monitor using fluoroscopy, several x-ray pictures are taken simultaneously at various intervals and from several different directions.

Though this entire procedure is used to check the health of the upper portion of the gastrointestinal tract, the esophagram consists of only an examination of the mouth, throat and the esophagus. This test is also known as a barium esophagram test or a barium swallow test.

Reasons Why Is It Performed?

The test is usually performed when a person displays specific symptoms such as difficulty in swallowing, incessant vomiting, pain in the esophagus, and regurgitation. This test can also help detect tumors, ulcers, and other abnormalities in the esophageal tract.

The esophagus is a highly motile organ which helps in the swallowing of food. However, if the motility of the organ is affected due to a disease or any other abnormality, there may be problems in swallowing food and keeping it down. An esophagram procedure, known as the cine esophagogram, is also considered a popular investigative technique for screening those who may have motor disabilities of the esophagus.

Preparation for Esophagram Test

To prepare for the test, it is important to discuss the use of any long term medications or kinds of allergies. If you are pregnant or are planning to get pregnant soon, you should discuss it with your doctor. It is recommended that you maintain a diet which is high in fiber for a few days before the test is scheduled. This test is performed after a fast of about 12 hours. Therefore, it is recommended to schedule the test in the morning. It is also not advised for the patient to smoke for twelve hours before or after the test.