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

Arthrograms create more detailed images than tests without contrast. They’re often used to take a closer look at joints in order to find the cause of pain or loss of function. The contrast fluid used in an arthrogram allows doctors to see details in 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 those who are pregnant.

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

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

If you’ve had joint replacement surgery and have a prosthetic joint, an arthrogram can let a health professional get a closer look at the prosthetic to ensure it has been placed correctly.

The exact procedure for your arthrogram will depend on whether you have the test done in an outpatient clinic or 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 removing jewelry, piercings, and other metal accessories. You will be given a secure locker to store your belongings in and a private room or stall to change in.
  2. You’ll be asked to lay on a table in order for the technician to conduct the imaging test.
  3. The technician will clean the skin around the affected joint with antiseptic.
  4. You’ll receive an injection into your joint to numb the area. This will ensure that you don’t feel pain during the procedure. This first injection may be uncomfortable.
  5. Using a needle and syringe, the technician will remove any fluid that has built up in your joint.
  6. They will then inject contrast dye into your joint using a long and thin needle. Most people feel pressure and discomfort while the dye is injected, but you should not feel much pain.
  7. You might be asked to move or exercise your joint to help the contrast dye spread throughout the joint. This is important because the contrast dye is what creates the clear images that make it possible to see tears, discolorations, and other damage.
  8. Once the dye spreads, the technician will take X-rays. They will take images of your joint in several positions, and they might use pillows to help you rest your joint at the right angle.
  9. Your doctor might order a fluoroscopy, MRI scan, or CT scan after your X-ray. (You can learn more about this in the following section.)

It’s important that your doctor knows about any metal implants you may have prior to ordering an arthrogram. This includes pacemakers and cochlear devices. Unlike with X-rays and CT scans, certain 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 dye is injected into your joint. During an indirect arthrogram, dye is injected into your bloodstream near the affected joint. It is then absorbed by your blood vessels and moves into the joint space.

Additional imaging can follow either kind of arthrogram. This can include:

  • Fluoroscopy. Fluoroscopy is a specialized type of X-ray that creates video or moving images of the inside of your body. This type of imaging lets the technician see the structures in real-time.
  • MRI scan. 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 can’t. Learn more about the different types of MRIs here.
  • CT scan. A CT scan uses a series of X-rays to create 3D computer images of the inside of your body.

The exact length of your imaging procedure will depend on the type of arthrogram you need and how many imagining tests have been ordered. Your doctor will let you know ahead of time what your arthrogram will include. Technicians will be able to give a reliable estimate of how long your procedure will last.

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

These may include:

  • Pain and swelling at the contrast injection site. It’s typical to be a little sore after a contrast injection in a joint, but swelling, redness, and pain may be signs of infection or an allergic reaction to the dye. Contact your doctor right away if you’re experiencing these symptoms. This is also true of excess bleeding.
  • Anxiety, panic, or claustrophobia. Getting imaging done can be stressful, and for some people, it may cause mental or emotional distress. This can be due to the use of needles, radiation, or loud noises, as well as being in an enclosed space (such as during an MRI). Let your doctor know beforehand if you are nervous about the imaging tests ordered. You may be prescribed a one-time-use medication to help lower anxiety and make the arthrogram manageable.
  • Risks of repeated radiation. Many imaging tests involve exposure to radiation, but the amount of radiation during a single X-ray or CT scan isn’t enough to cause harm. However, repeated imaging tests over a long period of time can increase your risk for some diseases, including cancer.

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

This includes people:

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

If you’re 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 pass their findings to your doctor. The imaging lab will automatically forward the images to your doctor, along with a report.

Your doctor, or someone from their office, will contact you to either explain the results or schedule an appointment to discuss them. They’ll let you know if you need additional testing 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 could include an X-ray, MRI scan, or CT scan and more. Your doctor may order multiple imaging tests.

Arthrograms are most often used to investigate the cause of joint pain and mobility issues. The test can identify joint dislocation or soft-tissue tears and check the placement of prosthetic joints following surgery.

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

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