Objective: Our purpose was to define a simple technique for timing a barium swallow by which radiologists can assess esophageal emptying in patients with achalasia before and after minimally invasive therapy. Our purpose was also to determine the best method of quantifying the degree of emptying using this timed technique.
Materials and methods: In the barium swallow technique, upright frontal spot films of the esophagus are obtained at 1, 2, and 5 min after ingestion of 100-200 ml of low-density (45% weight in volume) barium sulfate (volume of barium determined by patient tolerance). Forty-two of these barium swallows done by 23 patients with achalasia were retrospectively reviewed. The examination served either as a baseline study or as a 1-month follow-up study after patients had undergone pneumatic dilatation or Clostridium botulinum toxin injection. The spot films were digitized, and a region of interest was drawn around the column of barium by two observers. The change in area seen in the region of interest on the 1- and 5-min films served as the gold standard for percentage of emptying. The spot films were then analyzed by four other observers, each of whom independently, subjectively, and qualitatively estimated the percentage of emptying between the 1- and 5-min spot films. Percentages were divided into quintiles. On a separate occasion, each of these four observers also independently measured the height and width of the barium column on the 1- and 5-min spot films. The product of height times width seen on the 1- and 5-min films became the quantitative estimate for percentage of emptying.
Results: We found no statistically significant difference between the percentage of emptying as measured on the digitized images by the two observers and the height-times-width calculations or qualitative emptying percentage as estimated by the four observers. Interobserver agreement for the area evaluated on the digitized films as well as the height-times-width measurements and qualitative estimates of emptying was almost perfect (the correlation coefficients being 0.99, 0.87, and 0.93, respectively).
Conclusion: The timed barium swallow is a simple and reproducible technique. Both qualitative assessment and estimated change in area based on height-times-width measurements of the barium column are accurate methods of estimating esophageal emptying.