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Gastrointest Endosc. 2004 Dec;60(6):953-8.

Prospective comparison of air-contrast barium enema and colonoscopy in patients with fecal occult blood: a pilot study.

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  • 1Liver Center, Duke University Medical Center, Sands Building Room 334, Research Drive, Durham, NC 27710, USA.



The utility of air-contrast barium enema and colonoscopy for evaluation of the colon has been debated. Air-contrast barium enema is less expensive and invasive than colonoscopy, but it also is less sensitive and specific. Further, although air-contrast barium enema may be less painful than colonoscopy, it often is poorly tolerated by patients. Thus, this study compared the sensitivity and the specificity of air-contrast barium enema and colonoscopy for detection of colonic lesions in patients with fecal occult blood.


Over a 30-month period, patients with fecal occult blood were recruited. Patients underwent standard air-contrast barium enema, followed by colonoscopy 7 to 14 days later. Colonoscopists were blinded to the results of air-contrast barium enema until the colonoscopy was completed, after which the results were disclosed. If the findings were discrepant, colonoscopy was repeated.


A total of 100 patients were evaluated. Nine air-contrast barium enemas were reported to be inadequate, and the cecum was not intubated at colonoscopy in two patients. In the remaining patients, 5 cancers were identified (1 each cecum, transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, and rectum) by both studies. Sixty-six polypoid lesions were identified in 30 patients. Diverticula were identified in 42 patients by air-contrast barium enema and in 18 patients by colonoscopy. Air-contrast barium enema detected 3 of 36 polypoid lesions 5 mm or less in diameter, 5 of 15 adenomas 6 to 9 mm in size, and 4 of 15 adenomas 10 mm or greater in diameter (sensitivity 8%, 33%, and 27%, respectively). After excluding patients with diverticula, air-contrast barium enema detected 3 of 7 adenomas 10 mm or greater in size. Overall, 12 polypoid lesions or filling defects were identified by air-contrast barium enema that could not be verified by colonoscopy. The specificity of air-contrast barium enema for lesions 1.0 cm or greater in size was 100%; for those 6 mm or greater, it was 97%.


Air-contrast barium enema accurately detects colon cancer and diverticula. Its sensitivity for detection of polypoid lesions or adenomas is poor and was confounded by the presence of diverticula.

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