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Milk a Substitute for Barium in Patient X-Rays


For some time, doctors have known that milk could be used as a way of highlighting the bowel for radiological studies. Now, a researcher at a New York hospital has pitted milk against commercially available contrast media and found it does a comparable job at illuminating the bowel for computer tomagraphy scans.

Doctor Lisa Shah-Patel tested a group of 168 patients. About 60 of them received a commercial preparation of diluted barium solution and the rest received milk. All the subjects had CT scans of their small or large intestine or stomach. Then Shah-Patel gave the scans to radiologists to read the results, without the radiologists knowing which patients drank what.

The barium solution did a slightly better job at distending the walls of the bowels, but the radiologists reading the scans found no difference between barium and milk in terms of ability to read the X-rays. "Both the diluted barium base solution and the milk allow the inside of the bowel structure to appear to gray," Shah-Patel says.

Subjects could tell the difference, especially since they had to drink nearly a liter of either liquid before their scans.

"We're finding that patients prefer drinking milk, or do not object to drinking milk as much as they do drinking the diluted barium- based solution." Shah-Patel says. In addition she notes that patients drinking milk indicated they experienced fewer abdominal symptoms, including cramps, nausea, vomiting, flatulence or diarrhea.

Shah-Patel says another advantage to milk is that it's so widely available. "There's definitely a cost benefit as well, with the diluted barium-based solution costing about $18 per patient, versus milk, when bought by the quart, costing less than $1.50 per patient."

Shah-Patel says she'll continue to enroll patients in the study and refine her results. Her paper was

presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.