Is Milk or Barium Better for Scans?

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

Medical testing can cause anticipatory anxiety and make your stomach queasy. Add to that the feeling of aggravation you probably feel while undergoing testing for any given illness, it’s no wonder that you may want to avoid it altogether.

 Take the Computed Tomography Imaging (CT) scan, where patients must consume large quantities of barium, which is a white, chalky, metallic powder mixed with water to make a thick milkshake. This is used to coat the inside walls of your gastrointestinal tract, which appears white on an x-ray and allows radiologists to view your system. It’s not pleasant, to say the least.

 In addition to barium, patients are sometimes given a liquid or powder tablet that produces a gas when swallowed. You may also be asked to drink it through a straw so that you take in a certain amount of air with the barium, which will show up as black on the screen. The black air in contrast to the white barium fluid allows the radiologist to see your organs more clearly — this is referred to as a double contrast test. It is often used when structural or tissue abnormalities are suspected.

 Some researchers now believe that milk coats the intestines well enough so that radiologists can view your organs in a CT scan. Milk appears to produce images that are less precise and thus may not be ideal for all patients. However, some members of the medical community appear willing to consider this alternative.

 Specific types of CT scans are often used to examine the intestines along with the liver and spleen. Patients typically ingest one chemical and then another, where the two combined allow for a better view of our insides. In cases of Crohn’s disease and other conditions, these scans are to detect kinks or obstructions in the intestines.

 Doctors have also been using another diagnostic agent called “VoLumen,” which also includes barium. In a recent study conducted by radiologists, 62 patients drank VoLumen, while 106 patients drank two doses of whole milk, which equaled taking in a liter a half-hour prior to testing. Although, VoLumen was better at allowing radiologists to view certain types of images, 42% of the patients reported abdominal side effects like diarrhea, while only 25% of the patients drinking milk reported this symptom.

 However, the study did not state whether or not lactose-free or fat-free milk could be used, which would be lighter and more easily tolerated in the stomach than whole milk. Despite the vast difference in tolerance percentages in this test, some doctors still maintained that allergies to milk would cause more problems than VoLumen in large populations.

 On the speculative end, Dr. Raul N. Uppot, assistant radiologist at Harvard Medical School, debates the milk concept: “I don’t believe we should sacrifice image quality for improved tolerability,” he said.

 One would think cost would be an important factor. The price tag of VoLumen sits at $18 per patient, compared to $1.39 for milk. Personally, chocolate milk sounds like the best option.