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Myelography: Definition & Procedure

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Myelography is a special technique used to identify sources of back pain, using a contrasting fluid and regular X-rays. Read this lesson to learn how the procedure works and why it would be used.

What Is Myelography?

Technology has come a long way, and now there are methods for figuring out what's going on inside the body without needing to surgically open a patient up. One example of this is myelography, which is a procedure used to identify the source and cause of back pain through the use of X-rays.

Let's look at the process in a little more detail. First, the doctor will apply an antiseptic solution to the skin to reduce the chance of an infection at the injection site. A mild anesthetic is injected to numb the area and then a liquid dye is injected into the spinal column, usually around the lumbar (lower) back region. Afterwards, the patient is moved slightly to allow the dye to spread throughout the spine and fill in the nooks and crannies around the nerves and vertebrae. This is all done by gravity, so it's usually a painless process. It's most important to make sure the dye surrounds the area in pain. Then, a series of X-rays are taken, and this dye contrasts with the spinal parts, making any abnormalities stand out on the image.

The white spots of this scan show where the dye substance has been injected.
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Often, additional imaging tests, like computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are also done while the substance is still in the spine. The whole process can be done as an outpatient procedure and usually takes less than one hour. Additionally, there are very few side effects, and the harmless dye is naturally removed from the body within a few hours.

Following the procedure, the patient is advised to drink plenty of water and to avoid strenuous activity for the next 24 hours.

Why Use Myelography?

This procedure is done to locate abnormalities that are causing some type of back pain in the patient. The use of this contrasting, tracing dye allows the doctor to see the spine and its tissues and blood vessels in more detail than a normal scan would provide. Myelography may also be done in place of a CT or MRI scan if the patient has some limitation preventing those options from being safely done.

Myelography is especially useful for identifying herniated spinal discs, which are discs that have slipped out of position. Spinal discs act as cushions between the individual vertebrae of the spine, and it is extremely painful when they aren't sitting in the correct place. The procedure can also be used to identify cases of degeneration, either of the bones or the tissues. Degeneration occurs when part of the body gradually wears away over time, causing problems like pain or limited motion once the damage is severe enough.

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