Myelogram: About This Test

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Spinal canal and nerve roots with stenosis

What is it?

A myelogram uses X-rays and a special dye to make pictures of bones and nerves of the spine (spinal canal). The spinal canal holds the spinal cord, the spinal nerve roots, and the fluid-filled space between the bones in your spine.

Why is this test done?

A myelogram is done to check for:

  • The cause of arm or leg numbness, weakness, or pain.
  • Narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis).
  • A tumour or infection causing problems with the spinal cord or nerve roots.
  • A spinal disc that has ruptured (herniated disc).
  • Inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord.
  • Problems with the blood vessels to the spine.

How can you prepare for the test?

Your doctor will tell you if you need to change how much you eat and drink before the myelogram. You may be asked to increase the amount of water you drink before the test. Follow the instructions your doctor gives you about eating and drinking.

Before a myelogram, tell your doctor if:

  • You are allergic to any medicines, contrast material, or iodine dye.
  • You have had bleeding problems, or you take a blood thinner, such as aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), or warfarin (Coumadin), or you take over-the-counter medicines, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). Your doctor will tell you when you should stop taking these medicines several days before your procedure. Make sure that you understand exactly what he or she wants you to do.
  • You have had kidney problems.
  • You have diabetes, especially if you take metformin (Glucophage, for example).
  • You are or might be pregnant.

Ask someone to take you home and stay with you after the test.

What happens during the test?

The dye is put into your spinal canal with a thin needle. This is called a lumbar puncture. The dye moves through the space so the nerve roots and spinal cord can be seen more clearly. After the dye is put in, you will lie still while the X-ray pictures are taken.

How does it feel?

You will feel a quick sting from a small needle that has medicine to numb the skin on your back. You will also feel some pressure as the long, thin spinal needle is put into your spinal canal. You may feel a quick sharp pain down your buttock or leg when the needle is moved in your spine. The dye may make you feel warm and flushed and have a metallic taste in your mouth.

What else should you know about the test?

In rare cases, the hole made by the needle in the sac around the spine does not close normally. This can allow spinal fluid to leak out. This leak may need to be repaired through a procedure called an epidural blood patch. To do the patch, your doctor injects some of your own blood to cover the hole.

How long does the test take?

  • A myelogram usually takes 30 minutes to 1 hour.

What happens after the test?

  • You will probably be able to go home 30 minutes to 2 hours after the test.
  • You may need to lie in bed with your head raised for 4 to 24 hours after the test. To prevent seizures, which are a rare side effect, do not bend over or lie down with your head lower than your body. Keeping your head higher than your body after a myelogram also may help prevent or reduce other side effects, such as headache, nausea, or vomiting.
  • Avoid strenuous activity, such as running or heavy lifting, for at least 1 day after your myelogram.
  • Drink plenty of water after the myelogram. Your doctor will give you instructions on taking your regular medicines.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have a seizure.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have any increase in pain, weakness, or numbness in your legs.
  • You have a severe headache or stiff neck, or your eyes become very sensitive to light.
  • You have a headache that lasts longer than 24 hours.
  • You have problems urinating or having a bowel movement.
  • You have a fever.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to keep a list of the medicines you take. Ask your doctor when you can expect to have your test results.

Where can you learn more?

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