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What is an arthrogram?

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An arthrogram is an imaging test where you are injected with a special contrast agent (often called a dye). This is followed by an X-ray, fluoroscopy, MRI or CT scan.

Arthrograms create more detailed images than tests without contrast. They are often used to take a closer look at joints to find the cause of pain or loss of function. The contrast fluid used in an arthrogram allows doctors to see the details of your tissues and bones more clearly.

This type of imaging test is generally considered safe, but arthrograms are not recommended for people with joint infections or arthritis or for pregnant women.

In this article, we’ll go over the different types of arthrograms, what to expect during the procedure, and who is a good candidate to receive it.

An arthrogram is used to find the root cause of joint pain or mobility issues. The test can detect tears in the ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and capsules of your joints. He may also look for dislocated joints or bone fragments that could be causing pain.

If you have had joint replacement surgery and have a prosthetic joint, an arthrogram may allow a healthcare professional to take a closer look at the prosthesis to make sure it was placed correctly.

The exact procedure for your arthrogram will depend on whether you are having the test in an outpatient clinic or in a hospital setting. Your overall health factors also play a role.

However, some general steps are part of every arthrogram procedure. These include:

  1. You will change into a hospital gown. This will include the removal of jewelry, piercings and other metal accessories. You will have a secure locker to store your belongings and a private room or changing room.
  2. You will be asked to lie down on a table so that the technician can perform the imaging test.
  3. The technician will clean the skin around the affected joint with an antiseptic.
  4. You will receive an injection into your joint to numb the area. This will ensure that you will not feel any pain during the procedure. This first injection can be uncomfortable.
  5. Using a needle and syringe, the technician will remove any fluid that has collected in your joint.
  6. They will then inject contrast dye into your joint using a long, thin needle. Most people feel some pressure and discomfort while injecting the dye, but you shouldn’t feel much pain.
  7. You may be asked to move or exercise your joint to help the contrast dye spread through the joint. This is important because the contrast dye is what creates the clear images that allow tears, discolorations, and other damage to be seen.
  8. Once the dye is spread, the technician will take x-rays. They will take pictures of your joint in several positions and may use pillows to help rest your joint at right angles.
  9. Your doctor may order a fluoroscopy, MRI, or CT scan after your x-ray. (You can read more about this in the next section.)

It is important that your doctor knows about any metal implants you may have before ordering an arthrogram. This includes pacemakers and cochlear devices. Unlike X-rays and CT scans, some metal implants can be affected by an MRI machine.

There are two types of arthrograms: a direct arthrogram and an indirect arthrogram.

During a direct arthrogram, contrast material is injected into your joint. During an indirect arthrogram, a dye is injected into your bloodstream near the affected joint. It is then absorbed by your blood vessels and travels into the joint space.

Additional imaging may follow either type of arthrogram. This may include:

  • Radioscopy. Fluoroscopy is a specialized type of X-ray that creates video or moving images of the inside of your body. This type of imaging allows the technician to see the structures in real time.
  • MRI. An MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create computer-generated images of the inside of your body. An MRI can see organs and cartilage that X-rays cannot. Learn more about the different types of MRIs here.
  • CT. A scanner uses a series of X-rays to create 3D computer images of the inside of your body.

The exact duration of your imaging procedure will depend on the type of arthrogram you need and the number of imaging tests that have been ordered. Your doctor will let you know in advance what your arthrogram will include. Technicians will be able to give a reliable estimate of how long your procedure will take.

Arthrograms are considered very safe. However, as with all procedures, there are risks.

These may include:

  • Pain and swelling at the contrast injection site. It is typical to have some pain after an injection of contrast material into a joint, but swelling, redness and pain may be signs of infection or allergic reaction to dye. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms. This is also true for excessive bleeding.
  • Anxiety, panic or claustrophobia. Getting imagery can be stressful, and for some people it can cause mental or emotional distress. This may be due to the use of needles, radiation or loud noises, as well as being in an enclosed space (such as during an MRI). Tell your doctor ahead of time if you are nervous about ordered imaging tests. You may be prescribed a single-use medication to help reduce anxiety and make the arthrogram manageable.
  • Risks of repeated radiation. Many imaging tests involve exposure to radiation, but the amount of radiation from a single X-ray or CT scan is not enough to cause harm. However, repeated imaging tests over a long period of time can increase your risk of certain diseases, including cancer.

An arthrogram is often ordered for people with joint pain or joint function problems, but it is not safe in all cases. Some people who should avoid an arthrogram.

This includes people:

Arthritis can often be diagnosed by a combination of blood tests, symptoms, and an X-ray or MRI.

If you are pregnant but the reason for your arthrogram is an emergency, special precautions can be taken.

In most cases, it will take a day or two to get the results of your arthrogram.

A radiologist will interpret your arthrogram and report their findings to your doctor. The imaging lab will automatically send the images to your doctor, along with a report.

Your doctor, or someone in their office, will contact you to explain the results or schedule an appointment to discuss them. They will let you know if you need additional tests or a new treatment plan.

An arthrogram is an imaging test that uses contrast, a dye-like fluid, to get a more detailed look at a joint. An arthrogram may include an X-ray, MRI or CT scan, etc. Your doctor may order several imaging tests.

Arthrograms are most often used to find the cause of joint pain and mobility issues. The test can identify joint dislocation or soft tissue tears and verify prosthetic joint placement after surgery.

This test is not recommended for all causes of joint pain, such as arthritis or joint infections, which can be identified with other tests. It is important to work with your doctor to understand your risk factors for arthrography or any concerns you have.

The result of an arthrogram can help determine the next steps in treating your joint pain.