What Is an Upper GI and Small Bowel Series?

When you swallow a piece of food, it travels through your:

  • mouth
  • esophagus
  • stomach
  • small intestine

Sometimes, however, food doesn’t travel properly through the digestive system. This can result in nausea, stomach discomfort, and abdominal pain.

If you have these or other symptoms, your doctor may recommend an upper gastrointestinal (GI) and small bowel series. This painless imaging test allows your doctor to visualize these areas and track down the problem.

Your doctor uses the upper GI and small bowel test to detect abnormalities in the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. The test can pinpoint conditions ranging from slow intestinal movement to swallowing disorders and scarring in your digestive tract.

The upper GI and small bowel series mimic the flow of food from your mouth to your small intestine. You’ll be advised to stop eating for a certain time period before the test. You also should refrain from taking certain medications that may affect the test’s outcome, such as antacids, narcotics, or anticholinergics.

When you arrive, you’ll consume a drink with a thick consistency that’s similar to a milkshake. The drink containsbarium, a substance that will show up when taking X-rays. Always tell your doctor if you think you may be allergic to radiologic contrast materials.

Your imaging technologist will take several images of you during the process. The images will show the barium moving through your digestive system.

The time the test takes varies between 20 minutes to four hours. During this time, X-rays may be taken in sitting or standing positions to obtain different views of your body. You’ll be instructed to hold your breath and remain as still as possible while the X-rays are taken.

After the test is over, drink plenty of fluids and foods high in fiber. This helps to keep the barium moving through your system. The barium can cause your stool to be lighter in color for 24 to 72 hours after the procedure. Unless your doctor directs you otherwise, you can return to your normal diet following the test.

Because the test involves X-ray imaging, you’re exposed to a small degree of radioactive material. However, the risk for adverse effects due to radiation exposure is minimal.

If you’ve been experiencing stomach pains or difficulty with digestion, you may have trouble passing the barium through your digestive system. Tell your doctor if you haven’t passed light-colored stools within two to three days after the procedure. This can indicate you haven’t passed the barium.

It may take your doctor several days to review and evaluate the results of your upper GI and small bowel test. Your doctor will examine the scans to determine how well and how fast the barium traveled through your digestive system.

Abnormalities in your esophagus could pinpoint:

  • achalasia, which is a disorder affecting esophagus’ ability to move food into the stomach
  • diverticula, which is an abnormal pouch or sac in the esophagus
  • esophageal cancer
  • a narrowing of the esophagus
  • a hiatal hernia, which occurs when a part of the stomach sticks through an opening in the diaphragm and juts up into the chest
  • ulcers

Abnormalities in the stomach could indicate:

  • stomach cancer
  • an ulcer
  • inflammation of the stomach lining
  • polyps
  • pyloric stenosis, which is a condition in which the stomach’s opening to the small intestine, or the pylorus, becomes narrowed

Abnormalities in the small intestine can indicate:

  • poor absorption
  • inflammation of the small intestine
  • a tumor
  • an ulcer

Your doctor may order more laboratory tests before they’re able to give you a diagnosis. Once your doctor gives you a diagnosis, they’ll work with you to create a treatment plan that helps you manage your symptoms.