Please Pass the Milk (Hold the Barium Sulfate)

The foul-tasting barium sulfate liquid that patients have to drink before a CT scan of the digestive system could be replaced by ordinary whole milk, a small study suggests.

Barium sulfate is used to distend the hollow digestive organs so they can be seen in the images produced by the scan. Presumably any liquid could do this, but some liquids, like water, move through the system too quickly, while barium sulfate lingers in the intestines. The researchers found that drinking whole milk before the scan has essentially the same effect, because its fat content is digested slowly. The research will be presented today at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

“Our study is thus far limited with regard to numbers,” said Dr. Jeanne Baer, a radiologist at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital and the study’s senior author. “And before you can make firm recommendations you need better numbers. Therefore I can’t say to forget about barium sulfate.”

The scientists studied 168 patients scheduled for an outpatient CT scan. Before the scan, 62 of them drank about a quart of a diluted barium sulfate solution, and the rest drank whole milk.

The barium drink distended the small intestine somewhat more than the milk, but the definition of the intestinal walls was just as clear with milk as with barium. The contrast medium, given by injection to add definition to body tissues, was just as clear.

One additional significant benefit: the milk cost $1.39 per patient, while the barium sulfate cost $18.

Should a patient ask for milk instead of barium sulfate before a CT scan? “I would,” Dr. Baer said.

Source:The New York Times

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