Junkfood Science: Milk does a tummy good

June 05, 2008

Milk does a tummy good

These researchers thought to question how things have always been done. If you’ve ever had to chug barium before a CT scan of your tummy, this story will sound too good to be true.

For years, countless people have had to force down about 1,200 cc of a barium contrast drink before having CT scans of their abdomen and pelvis to diagnose bowel disorders and abnormalities. The barium coats the insides of the esophagus, stomach and intestine, appearing dark while the intestinal wall appears brighter. The contrast from the barium allows radiologists to better visualize the bowel wall and more clearly delineate the bowel cavity and soft tissue. Barium drinks, however, can come with unpleasant side effects like constipation, diarrhea, nausea and cramping. The acidy-burning taste of the chalky, milky liquid can make getting it down one of the most unpleasant parts of the diagnostic test. Children especially balk at drinking the barium–based drinks.

Researchers at St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City wondered if milk might work just as well.

They conducted a randomized blinded trial of 215 consecutive patients, giving half of the patients whole (full-fat) milk before their CT scans and the other half the usual 0.1% oral barium contrast drink, VoLumen. Two radiologists independently examined the patients’ films, blinded as to what contrast agent each patient had received. They graded the degree of bowel distention and bowel wall visibility. The researchers had presented their preliminary findings at the Scientific Assembly of the Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago and the final results were just published in the American Journal of Roentgenology.

Their findings? There was no statistical difference between whole milk and VoLumen as a contrast media for visualizing the bowel wall and bowel distention. The images of the patients given milk were just as useful as the images of the patients given the barium, said Dr. Chi Wan Koo, M.D., lead author. Patients rated the milk as preferable and reported far fewer abdominal side effects. Plus, the researchers noted, milk is considerably cheaper than the $18 VoLumen per patient.

As was reported by Mike Mitka of the Journal of the American Medical Association, “of the 30 to 40 million CT scans performed annually in the United States, about 30% are for abdominal conditions where milk could be used.”

A show of hands as to which drink you’d choose. Now the question is, if strawberry or chocolate-flavored milk works just as well. :-)

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