X-Rays for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

This useful test is used in the diagnosis and management of many conditions

X-ray of the large intestine
In some cases, an x-ray can be a useful tool to help a physician understand what is happening inside the digestive tract. Image © CNRI / Getty Images

X-rays use waves of electromagnetic radiation to form images of organs and other structures inside the body. They are absorbed in differing amounts by different body tissues. Skin, fat, and muscle allow more x-rays to pass through, but bones are denser and absorb x-rays. The ultimate result is a shadow on a film that shows images of bones as white, and softer tissues as shades of gray.

The good news is that plain x-rays take less than a minute to complete. X-rays may not provide a lot of information in terms of what is happening with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), But they are sometimes used at times when other tests aren't available or when time is a crucial factor (x-rays are quick and readily available).

How X-Rays Work

In diagnosing IBD, x-rays are usually not the only test that is done. However, x-rays are done as a part of longer procedures such as a barium enema or an upper GI series. X-rays also may be used if a bowel obstruction or toxic megacolon is suspected. With these conditions, passing barium through the GI tract to do a contrast x-ray may not be possible.

X-rays can be used to detect cancer, as in a mammography (for breast cancer) or a barium enema (for colorectal cancer). They are routine procedures used to check for cancer in adults. Very high doses of x-rays may be used in cancer treatment.

Preparing for an X-Ray

Each different type of x-ray procedure has its own specific preparation. X-rays of the digestive tract may require diet changes, while mammographies require that the patient must not use deodorants, powders, perfumes and creams which may produce abnormal shadows. All jewelry should be removed from the body part to be x-rayed.

For x-rays of the gastrointestinal tract, the stomach, small intestine, and/or colon may need to be clear of food and stool. Therefore, either a period of fasting, or a preparation to clean the colon might be needed.

How They're Done

Patients may be asked to remove any clothing that is over the part of the body to be x-rayed. If necessary, wearing a hospital gown may be easiest for the test. A protective lead drape may also be used to shield the part of the body not being tested.

While either lying or sitting on a table in an x-ray room, a technician will position the patient to get the most appropriate view of the body for the x-ray. The x-ray machine will be positioned near the body so that the x-ray tube is aimed at the right area on the body. The technician will stand behind a protective panel and activate the x-ray machine.

X-Ray Risks

Modern techniques and equipment can minimize x-ray exposure and protect reproductive organs during the procedure, but parents should make sure x-rays are absolutely necessary for growing children, and insure that their children's bodies are exposed as little radiation as possible.

By keeping track of when and where x-rays have been completed in the past, it may be possible to avoid having the repeated tests, and thereby lessen the exposure to x-rays. After 7 to 10 years, x-ray facilities may destroy films, so patients may want to obtain older x-rays to keep in a personal medical record.

X-Rays and Pregnancy

Tell the radiologist if there is a chance of a pregnancy before the x-ray is taken. X-rays may affect a developing fetus. There are tests other than x-rays that can be safely used in women who are pregnant.

Follow-Up Care

Call the doctor in a few days to find out the results of the x-rays.

A Word From Verywell

X-rays usually have no side effects. For most types of x-rays, normal daily activities can be carried out after the test is over. If contrast medium was injected before the x-ray, contact a doctor if there is bleeding, pain, swelling, or redness at the injection site. If barium was swallowed or given as an enema, drinking water may be recommended to flush the barium out of the digestive tract. Ask a physician for any other instructions.

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Article Sources
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  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Crohn's Disease." National Institutes of Health. Feb 2006. 28 Dec 2013.
  • Velayos F, Mahadevan U. "How IBD Is Diagnosed." Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. 2007. 28 Dec 2013.