An arthrogram is a test that helps healthcare providers diagnose joint problems, such as hip or shoulder pain. MR arthrograms can show ligament, tendon and cartilage issues with clear detail. You get a special dye injected into your joint before having an MRI scan or other imaging test.
An arthrogram (also called arthrography) is a medical imaging procedure that gives healthcare providers a detailed view of what’s happening inside your joints without a single incision. Your provider may use an arthrogram to pinpoint the cause of unexplained joint pain.
Providers may also use arthrography to precisely deliver powerful medication, such as steroids, inside a joint. Healthcare providers call this procedure therapeutic arthrography.
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Arthrography is a two-part procedure. First, a trained healthcare provider injects a special dye (called contrast) directly or indirectly into the affected joint. The dye absorbs into the joint, making tiny structures (and hard-to-detect problems) easier to see.
Next, a provider takes images of the joint. Your provider may use X-rays, CT, MRI or another type of medical imaging during an arthrogram. In some cases, your provider may take pictures of the joint before and after the dye injection.
Arthrograms evaluate the body’s joint tissues. Providers often do this procedure to evaluate your shoulder (called a shoulder arthrogram) or hip (hip arthrogram).
Your provider may recommend an arthrogram to check:
Healthcare providers often perform arthrograms to find joint pain’s cause. Your provider may recommend an arthrogram if an initial physical exam or medical tests (such as X-rays) don’t provide enough information for a diagnosis.
Your provider may also recommend an arthrogram if you can’t easily move a joint (such as your knee or shoulder) and don’t know why. Sometimes, medical providers use arthrography to evaluate joint tissues after joint replacement surgery.
Your provider may perform a direct or indirect arthrogram. During direct arthrography, your provider uses a thin needle to inject dye right into the joint space.
In indirect arthrography, a trained medical professional injects dye into a vein near the affected joint. The dye moves through your blood vessels until it reaches your joint, where dye absorbs into joint tissues.
Your provider will help you understand what to expect during your test. You shouldn’t need to prepare in any special way. If you can, wear loose-fitting clothes that allow you to easily expose the affected joint. You may need to wear a hospital gown during the test.
Each medical imaging technology has risks and benefits. Talk with your provider about your medical history, including any recent illnesses or allergies. Your provider will explain any precautions you may need to take (such as stopping certain medications) before your procedure.
Be sure to tell your physician if you are or think you may be pregnant. Certain tests (such as imaging technologies that use radiation) can harm a developing fetus.
Your provider may ask you to remove your top or pants, depending on which joint you’re having tested.
A radiologist (doctor trained in medical imaging technology) will perform your test. A specially trained technologist may assist in taking medical images. Your providers may take images (such as X-rays) before and after the joint injection.
During an arthrogram, your provider will:
Providers often perform fluoroscopy and X-ray in the same room where you get the joint injection. If you need a CT or MRI, a medical professional may walk you to another room to get those pictures right after your joint injection.
It’s important to have pictures taken soon after the joint injection. Otherwise, the dye travels throughout your body. Once that happens, medical images no longer provide extra detail around your joint tissues.
During some arthrogram procedures, your provider may inject medication (such as cortisone) right inside your joint. The injection aims to reduce inflammation or relieve pain. The results can give a fuller understanding of joint issues to help detect the problem.
Your provider may use one or more imaging tests during your arthrogram:
Not usually. You may feel slight discomfort when your provider releases the contrast material into the joint. Many people report feeling a “full” or “tight” sensation around the joint.
You should be able to get back to your day shortly after the test is over. Some people experience a bit of soreness or swelling around the joint after an arthrogram. If that’s the case, take it easy for the rest of the day.
Any discomfort should go away within two days. If not, call your healthcare provider for guidance.
The overall risks of arthrography are low. Possible risks include:
The radiologist who performed your arthrogram will review the pictures taken of your joint. They will alert your provider to the test results, usually within 24 hours after the test. Results may take longer if you have your test on a Friday.
Your provider will discuss your test results with you. Your provider may recommend more tests or possible treatments (such as joint replacement surgery) to fix the joint and relieve your symptoms.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Joint pain can keep you from living an active life. But diagnosing joint pain can be tricky. Arthrography offers providers fine details of the tiny structures inside your joints. It’s a relatively painless diagnostic procedure with few risks. If pain in your hip, shoulder or another joint is holding you back, reach out to your provider about tests or treatments that may help you find relief.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/28/2020.
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