Swallowing Study

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Test Overview

A swallowing study is a test that shows what your throat and esophagus do while you swallow. The test uses X-rays in real time (fluoroscopy) and records what happens when you swallow. While you swallow, the doctor and speech pathologist watch a video screen.

For a swallowing study, you will swallow liquid mixed with a substance called barium. Or you might swallow solid foods coated with barium.

The barium shows the movements of your throat and esophagus on the X-ray while you swallow.

Why It Is Done

The test helps your doctor see why you're having trouble swallowing.

How To Prepare

Tell your doctor if:

  • You are taking any medicines.
  • You are allergic to any medicines, barium, or any other X-ray contrast material.
  • You are or might be pregnant.
  • You are breastfeeding.

Your doctor may tell you not to eat anything after midnight the night before the test.

How It Is Done

Before the test

  • Remove any jewelry that might get in the way of the X-ray picture.
  • You may need to take off all or most of your clothes around the area being X-rayed.
  • You may be given a gown to wear during the test.
  • A lead shield will be placed over your pelvic area to protect it from radiation.

During the test

  • You will stand or sit in front of the X-ray machine while the test is done.
  • The doctor and a speech pathologist will guide you through a series of swallowing steps.
  • Depending on the type of study, you will swallow liquid mixed with barium or solid foods coated with barium.
  • While you swallow, the doctor and speech pathologist will watch the video screen. They may ask you to take different positions to see how they affect your swallowing. The X-rays are recorded so they can be looked at later.
  • The test takes 20 to 30 minutes.

After the test

  • You will probably be able to go home right away.
  • You can go back to your usual activities right away.
  • When the swallowing study is done, you may eat and drink whatever you like, unless your doctor tells you not to.
  • You may have light-colored stools for a few days after the test while the barium leaves your body.
  • The barium may cause constipation. Drink plenty of water for a couple of days after the test. You may take a laxative if needed. Call your doctor if you haven't had a bowel movement 2 or 3 days after the test.

How It Feels

The barium liquid is thick and chalky, and some people find it hard to swallow. A sweet flavor, like chocolate or strawberry, is used to make it easier to drink.

After the test, you may feel bloated and a little nauseated.

Risks

The barium in the food is not harmful.

Some people gag when they drink the barium fluid. In rare cases, a person may choke and inhale (aspirate) some of the liquid into the lungs.

There is a small chance that the barium will block the intestine or leak into the belly through a perforated ulcer.

If your doctor thinks you may be at risk for complications, he or she may use a special type of contrast material (Gastrografin) instead of barium.

There is always a small chance of damage to cells or tissue from being exposed to any radiation, even the low level of radiation used for this test.

Results

A swallowing study is a test that lets your doctor see what your throat and esophagus do while you swallow. The barium shows the movements of your throat and esophagus on the X-ray while you swallow.

Swallowing study findings
Normal:

The throat and esophagus look normal while you swallow. They do not have swelling, an injury, narrowing, or foreign objects.

Abnormal:

The throat and esophagus don't look normal while you swallow. The test shows swelling, an injury, narrowing, or foreign objects that make it hard to swallow.

What Affects the Test

You may not be able to have the test, or the results may not be helpful, if:

  • You eat before the test.
  • You are pregnant.
  • You aren't able to follow instructions during the test.
  • You are extremely overweight.
  • You have had a barium enema within a week before this test.

What To Think About

  • The barium swallowed during a swallowing study may take several days to pass through the intestine. So if a barium enema is planned, it should be done at least a week after the swallowing test.
  • Small children can have a swallow study.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerPeter J. Kahrilas, MD - Gastroenterology

Current as ofOctober 14, 2016