Two x-rays are hanging side by side to highlight a barium swallow study.

What Is a Barium Swallow Study?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2024

Myasthenia gravis (MG) generally causes muscle weakness. In some cases, MG can affect a person’s ability to swallow. Swallowing involves several muscles, and MG may cause those muscles to get tired easily. Difficulty swallowing is more common in people with MG who also have a tumor on the thymus gland (thymoma).1

People who have trouble eating or swallowing may need to do a barium swallow study. This test takes images or videos while you eat food or drink liquids that contain the imaging agent barium. This imaging study can help identify any swallowing problems and help your healthcare team develop a treatment plan.1,2

Barium swallow study versus modified barium swallow study

If you have problems with swallowing, your doctor may suggest that you have 1 of 2 closely related tests. Both a barium swallow study and a modified barium swallow study (MBSS) can help diagnose swallowing problems. But there are some key differences between these 2 tests.3

Swallowing involves the mouth, the throat (pharynx), and the esophagus (a tube that connects the throat to the stomach). Your doctor will choose 1 of the barium swallow studies based on where your swallowing problems may be happening and your symptoms.1,3

If the swallowing problems seem to be happening in the mouth or the throat, your doctor will likely suggest MBSS. The MBSS is the most common swallow study ordered for people with MG. If the problem seems to be only in the esophagus, they will likely suggest a barium swallow study.3

How does a barium swallow study work?

A barium swallow study uses X-rays to look at the muscles involved in swallowing. X-rays are a form of radiation. During the study, you will drink liquids or eat foods containing barium sulfate, which is good at absorbing the X-rays.1,4

As you are eating or drinking, X-rays will be sent through your body and the barium will absorb them. This allows your healthcare team to see how the barium-containing food travels from your mouth toward your stomach.1

A barium swallow study uses only a liquid containing barium. On the other hand, MBSS uses both liquids and solid foods containing barium. Also, liquids of varying consistencies or thicknesses may be used during MBSS.3

Why is a barium swallow study done?

Problems with swallowing can have serious consequences for your health. They can make it difficult to maintain a healthy diet or cause choking. The goal of a barium swallow study is to find out what is causing a person’s swallowing problems. Your doctor may recommend a barium swallow study if:1,2

  • You find it difficult to swallow
  • Your swallowing muscles get tired while eating
  • You often feel food stuck in your throat and need to clear your throat
  • You often experience food going into your lungs (aspiration), or “going down the wrong pipe”

A barium swallow study can help your doctor find the underlying causes of your swallowing problems. It can also help them gauge how severe or dangerous the swallowing problems are. This helps them create an appropriate treatment plan.3

A barium swallow study also can be used to find ways to reduce swallowing problems. During the test, you may be asked to sit in different positions to see if they help the swallowing process.1,4

Follow any guidelines given by your care team for a barium swallow study. Depending on the type of barium study, you may be asked to not eat or drink a few hours before the test. Also, tell your doctor if you have any allergies or if you are pregnant before undergoing a barium swallow study.3,4

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.