Imaging In Practice

Role of barium esophagography in evaluating dysphagia

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ABSTRACTPatients with dysphagia can initially undergo either endoscopic or radiologic evaluation, depending on the clinical history and physician preference. We usually recommend that most patients with dysphagia initially undergo barium esophagography, and in this paper we discuss its role in evaluating dysphagia.


  • Dysphagia can be due to problems in the oropharynx and cervical esophagus or in the distal esophagus.
  • Radiologic evaluation of dysphagia has distinct advantages over endoscopy, including its ability to diagnose both structural changes and motility disorders.
  • A barium evaluation can include a modified barium-swallowing study to evaluate the oropharynx, barium esophagography to evaluate the esophagus, and a timed study to evaluate esophageal emptying.
  • Often, the true cause of dysphagia is best approached with a combination of radiographic and endoscopic studies.



A 55-year-old woman presents with an intermittent sensation of food getting stuck in her mid to lower chest. The symptoms have occurred several times per year over the last 2 or 3 years and appear to be slowly worsening. She says she has no trouble swallowing liquids. She has a history of gastroesophageal reflux disease, for which she takes a proton pump inhibitor once a day. She says she has had no odynophagia, cough, regurgitation, or weight loss.

How should her symptoms best be evaluated?


Dysphagia is the subjective sensation of difficulty swallowing solids, liquids, or both. Symptoms can range from the inability to initiate a swallow to the sensation of esophageal obstruction. Other symptoms of esophageal disease may also be present, such as chest pain, heartburn, and regurgitation. There may also be nonesophageal symptoms related to the disease process causing the dysphagia.

Dysphagia can be separated into oropharyngeal and esophageal types.

Oropharyngeal dysphagia arises from problems in the oropharynx and cervical esophagus and is commonly caused by neurologic disorders of the central or peripheral nervous system (eg, stroke, myasthenia gravis), inflammatory myopathy, or a structural abnormality of the oropharynx, hypopharynx, or cervical esophagus such as a cricopharyngeal bar or tumor (Table 1). Patients typically complain of not being able to initiate a swallow or of food getting stuck in the cervical region immediately upon swallowing, accompanied by nasal regurgitation.1

Interestingly, many patients with symptoms of oropharyngeal dysphagia in fact have referred symptoms from primary esophageal dysphagia2; many patients with a distal mucosal ring describe a sense of something sticking in the cervical esophagus.

Esophageal dysphagia arises in the mid to distal esophagus or gastric cardia, and as a result, the symptoms are typically retrosternal.1 It can be caused by structural problems such as strictures, rings, webs, extrinsic compression, or a primary esophageal or gastroesophageal neoplasm, or by a primary motility abnormality such as achalasia (Table 1). Eosinophilic esophagitis is now a frequent cause of esophageal dysphagia, especially in white men.3


Many gastroenterologists recommend endoscopy rather than barium esophagography as the initial examination in patients with dysphagia.4–8 Each test has certain advantages.

Advantages of endoscopy. Endoscopy is superior to esophagography in detecting milder grades of esophagitis. Further, interventions can be performed endoscopically (eg, dilation, biopsy, attachment of a wireless pH testing probe) that cannot be done during a radiographic procedure, and endoscopy does not expose the patient to radiation.

Advantages of esophagography. Endoscopy cannot detect evidence of gastroesophageal reflux disease unless mucosal injury is present. In dysphagia, the radiologic findings correlate well with endoscopic findings, including the detection of esophageal malignancy and moderate to severe esophagitis. Further, motility disorders can be detected with barium esophagography but not with endoscopy.9,10

Subtle abnormalities, especially rings and strictures, may be missed by narrow-diameter (9.8–10 mm) modern upper-endoscopic equipment. Further, esophagography is noninvasive, costs less, and may be more convenient (it does not require sedation and a chaperone for the patient after sedation). This examination also provides dynamic evaluation of the complex process of swallowing. Causes of dysphagia external to the esophagus can also be determined.

In view of the respective advantages and disadvantages of the two methods, we believe that in most instances barium esophagography should be the initial examination,1,9,11–15 and at our institution most patients presenting with dysphagia undergo barium esophagography before they undergo other examinations.14


Before a barium examination of the esophagus is done, a focused medical history should be obtained, as it can guide the further workup as well as the esophageal study itself.

An attempt should be made to determine whether the dysphagia is oropharyngeal or if it is esophageal, as the former is generally best initially evaluated by a speech and language pathologist. Generally, the physician who orders the test judges whether the patient has oropharyngeal or esophageal dysphagia. Often, both an oropharyngeal examination, performed by a speech and language pathologist, and an esophageal examination, performed by a radiologist, are ordered.

Rapidly progressive symptoms, especially if accompanied by weight loss, should make one suspect cancer. Chronic symptoms usually point to gastroesophageal reflux disease or a motility disorder such as achalasia. Liquid dysphagia almost always means the patient has a motility disorder such as achalasia.

In view of the possibility of eosinophilic esophagitis, one should ask about food or seasonal allergies, especially in young patients with intermittent difficulty swallowing solids.3

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