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What Is an Arthrogram?

An arthrogram (AR-thruh-gram) is a test done to look inside a joint for injuries or other problems. It takes pictures that give doctors a view of the soft tissue in a joint, which a regular X-ray can’t do. This helps them find the cause of problems like joint pain or swelling.

Also called arthrography (ar-THROG-ruh-fee), it’s usually done to check knee and shoulder joints. Sometimes doctors examine other joints, like the wrist, ankle, hip, or elbow. Less often, doctors do arthrograms to put medicine inside a joint to relieve pain.

How Are Arthrograms Done?

Radiologists (doctors who diagnose and treat problems using medical imaging) do arthrograms. The radiologist will:

  • Numb the skin around the joint.
  • Put a thin needle into the joint.
  • Inject contrast dye into the joint to help make the pictures clearer. 
  • Take X-rays of the joint in different positions.

If an arthrography is done to give medicine, it’s injected into the joint with the needle.

Less often, radiologists use an ultrasound, fluoroscopy (a continuous type of X-ray that takes moving pictures), CT scan (a type of X-ray that takes very detailed pictures), or MRI to get the pictures rather than an X-ray.

Sometimes doctors do an arthrogram during surgery. The pictures can help them make treatment decisions during the surgery.

After the arthrogram, the radiologist looks at the pictures to get more information about the joint. When the test results are ready, your child’s doctor will share them with you.

Why Are Arthrograms Done?

Doctors order arthrograms to diagnose and sometimes treat arthropathies. An arthropathy (ar-THROP-uh-thee) is a disease or condition that affects the joints, such as arthritis or gout. Things that can cause one include injuries, infection, autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, and crystals forming in a joint.

Some arthropathies, like arthritis, can affect almost any joint in the body. Others, such as gout or Charcot joint, usually affect the feet and ankles. Many joint problems are temporary and clear up within a few weeks. But some can last for years or never go away.

Treatment may involve medicines or surgery, depending on the problem and its cause. In most cases, finding and treating the condition early can help prevent more joint damage and help a person live a normal life.

How Can Parents Help?

After the test, follow the doctor’s instructions for:

  • how long your child should rest the joint
  • which activities are OK and which to avoid
  • whether it’s OK to bear weight on the joint
  • if your child should limit movement of the joint
  • when your child can return to school, sports, and other activities

If your child has pain and the doctor says it’s OK, you can give acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Follow the package directions for how much to give and how often. You also can put a cool compress (such as a washcloth soaked in cool water) on the joint.

Your child’s joint may make sounds when moved for the next 24–48 hours. This is from the contrast dye in the joint and is not a reason to worry.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call the doctor if your child has:

  • redness or swelling around the joint
  • a fever within 3 days of the arthrogram
  • drainage or bleeding from the injection site that continues for more than 1 day
  • pain that doesn’t get better with acetaminophen or ibuprofen or goes on for more than 2 days