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 tumor 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.

This test may help find the cause of pain that can't be found by other tests, such as an MRI or a CT scan.

How do 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.

If you take a medicine that prevents blood clots, your doctor may tell you to stop taking it before your test. Or your doctor may tell you to keep taking it. (These medicines include aspirin and other blood thinners.) Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.

Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.

How is the test done?

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. You may find it hard to lie on your stomach or side during this test.

The dye may make you feel warm and flushed and have a metallic taste in your mouth. Some people feel sick to their stomach or have a headache. Tell your doctor how you are feeling.

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 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 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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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.