Explanation of medical terms


Barium meal: An x-ray where you are asked to drink a liquid containing barium which allows the gullet, stomach and the beginning of the small bowel to be seen and recorded on an x-ray film.

Barium enema: An x-ray where you have a liquid containing barium passed up into your large bowel (colon) so that it can be seen and recorded on an x-ray film. On the day before test you are required to take a laxative which clears out the bowel. During the test air is passed up into the bowel, as well as barium, in order to get better pictures. This can cause some discomfort.

Gastroscopy: A test where a camera on a tube is passed into the gullet, stomach and duodenum (top of the small bowel) so that these areas can be inspected and photographed. It is also possible to take biopsies (link to biopsy) at the same time. Before a gastroscopy you have to go without food for about 12 hours and you can choose whether or not to have sedation during the test.

A Biopsy: is the term applied to the process of taking a small sample from the lining of any part of the gullet, stomach or bowel so that it can be looked at under a microscope.

Colonoscopy: A test where a camera on a tube is passed into your large bowel so that these areas can be inspected and photographed. It is also possible to take biopsies at the same time. On the day before the test you are required to take a laxative which clears out the bowel and you have to go without food for about 12 hours before the test. You can choose whether or not to have sedation during the test.

Sigmoidoscopy: This test is similar to a colonoscopy and uses a similar instrument but only the lower part of the bowel rather than the whole bowel is inspected. This test is often performed without sedation. It may also be performed without the need to take laxative the day before although some doctors give an enema to clear out the bowel just before the test.

An endoscope (endo - scope): The name for any instrument that is designed to look into any organ of the body. A word is then put in front of the word 'scope' to explain which part of the body it is made to look at eg. colono- scope, gastro-scope or laparoscope.

Laparoscopy: A test where a camera on a tube is passed into the abdomen (tummy) so that all the organs in the abdomen can be inspected on their outside. It is possible to look at the liver, gall bladder, intestines and in women the ovaries, tubes and womb. Operations can be performed using a laparoscope and this is called laparoscopic surgery.

Capsule Endoscopy: This is a test where a small video like camera not attached to a tube is swallowed and left to pass through the whole length of the bowel. It eventually gets passed out with your stools and is totally disposable. It is particularly good at getting pictures of the entire small bowel which is very difficult to reach with other techniques.

CT Scan: CT stands for computed tomography. This is a sophisticated form of scanning which gives very detailed x-ray pictures of the area being scanned. When used to look at the colon the pictures can even be converted into 3D images that can look very realistic and even resemble those obtained at colonoscopy. This is sometimes called virtual colonoscopy or CT colonography.

MR Scan: MR stands for magnetic resonance. This is very similar to a CT scan but does not involve the use of x-rays. The pictures are obtained using a very strong magnet and this has the advantage that the technique can be repeated over and over again if necessary without any worries about excessive exposure to radiation.

Lactose tolerance test: A test to find out if you are intolerant of lactose which is sugar found in milk. Lactose can cause diarrhoea following the consumption of milk. The test involves drinking a liquid containing lactose and having your breath analysed every few minutes for the presence of a gas called hydrogen over a period of time. The breath is tested by blowing into an instrument rather similar to those used for detecting alcohol on the breath.

Occult blood test: This is a test to detect tiny amounts of blood in the stools which cannot be seen when you look at the stools. If positive, it suggests that there is some bleeding somewhere in the bowel which deserves further investigation. However the test can occasionally be positive even if there is nothing wrong but it is useful for screening purposes. It is not worth doing if the patient has a sore anus (back passage) as this will almost certainly be leaking a small amount of blood which will give a positive result. In women the test will often be positive during their periods.

Oesophageal manometry: This is a test where a tube is placed in the gullet so that its muscle activity (contractions) can be recorded. It is useful for investigating the cause of heartburn where the valve at the lower end of the gullet may be leaky and allowing acid from the stomach to 'reflux' up into the gullet where it can burn it. Manometry can also be used for investigating chest pain which can sometimes be caused by spasm (excessive contractions) of the gullet.

Oesophageal pH testing: By measuring the pH of a fluid you can tell whether it contains acid or not. By placing a tube capable of recording pH in the gullet for 24 hours it is possible to find out whether a person is 'refluxing' excessive amounts of acid up into their gullet from their stomach. The tube is very thin and is put in through the nose so that the patient can eat and sleep normally throughout the 24 hours.

Helicobacter pylori (H pylori): This is a germ that is found in the stomach of some people and can sometimes lead to an ulcer. Patients with IBS often ask whether this bacterium can cause IBS and there is no evidence to suggest this. It may sometimes play a part in functional dyspepsia (link to functional dyspepsia) but this is still a rather controversial subject.