MRI, Nerve Conduction Study, and EMG

MRI, Nerve Conduction Study, and EMG Update

Update: This article was originally posted late 2008 - so advancements may have taken place to make the mentioned tests less invasive. I am not a doctor and I do not recommend taking my advice or anyone else's in the comment section on any medical issue. If your personal doctor feels you should have any test you should follow his or her advice. The purpose of this article is to offer my experience and opinion of the procedures.

A few years ago I began exhibiting numerous odd symptoms. My doctor and I both thought the symptoms to be neurological in nature. I underwent numerous tests to determine exactly what was going on with me physically. I had two MRI's, a nerve conduction study, and an EMG. I would like to share those experiences with you to help you better prepare for similar procedures.

A picture of the typical closed MRI
A picture of the typical closed MRI | Source

The MRI

An MRI is performed to differentiate between pathological tissues and normal tissues within the body. It is also used to monitor the neurological, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems of patients. I had an MRI (magnet resonance imaging) performed about a year ago. As a matter of fact, I had two of them. I had an MRI of my brain and an MRI of my cervical spine. Both times, I had to lay on my back on a very narrow table that slid into a thin tube. The MRI procedure is completely painless but may cause mental distress to those who are unable to be in small, tight spaces for an extended amount of time. If you are one of the many people who is unable to tolerate small, closed spaces you can ask your primary care physician to give you something to help with anxiety during the MRI. For the MRI of my brain a small plastic "cage" that looked like a miniature milk crate was placed over my head. It did not cause any discomfort and I did not even realize it was in place once I closed my eyes. (My technician told me to close my eyes before she slid me into the tube to reduce anxiety and told me to keep them closed for the entire time I was in the tube.) I was in the MRI machine for an hour and a half for the brain scan. The machine made all kinds of strange noises in surround sound. Some sounded like a xylophone, others sounded like chartoon-ish aliens arguing, and others sound like the soft, rhythmic beat of a distant drum. The repetitive sounds actually put me in a semi-conscious state of mind when I focused on them too intently. The radiologist told me to stay completely still so I would not blur or mess up any of the images. Sometimes the noises in the MRI were so strange it was difficult not to smile or laugh, which made it even more difficult not to move. Don't confuse the previous statement to sound like I enjoyed the experience. Rather, I am one of those people who needed anxiety medication due to the small, cramped tube. I am also fidgety and it was difficult to hold still for so long. My second MRI for my cervical spine only took about 30 minutes and the machine made the same odd noises and I had to hold still again. I did not require medication the second time because I knew it would be for a much shorter duration.

Note: I do not have experience with these types of MRI's, but there are open MRI's for those people who do not fit into a MRI tube or who cannot tolerate being in the MRI tube.

Is this torture or medical treatment?
Is this torture or medical treatment? | Source

The Nerve Conduction Study

The nerve conduction study has an ominous sound to me, like an evil scientist's experiment. The test name also makes me think of human torture techniques that must have been used on criminals in the dark ages. However, getting shocks of electricity sent through your nerves is not nearly as painful as one may think. A nerve conduction study is often performed to help diagnose issues with the nervous system. Electrical currents are used to measure the electrical activity traveling between your brain and your nerves. The current used is much less than what powers your home and the study only produces mild discomfort in my opinion. The feeling is akin to hitting your "funny bone" again and again in different areas of your body, depending on where the technician is placing the device that transmits the current. While indeed an incredibly annoying feeling, I was not in any pain during the procedure.

I had the nerve conduction study performed a year ago for peripheral neuropathy and I was terrified before I got to the appointment. However, the test was not nearly as bad as I had feared. The technician gave me a gown to wear and I had to lay flat on an examination table. The room was dimly lit and very quiet to ease my nerves, please pardon the pun. The technician rolled a cart over to the table and showed me the device she would use to stimulate my nerves and to measure the activity taking place between each nerve and my brain. The test was performed on both sides of my body along my arms and legs. The first series of currents were a mild tingle. As the test went on, the technician increased the current until my extremities were twitching with each shock. As stated earlier, the shocks did not hurt, not even at their strongest point. The feeling was weird indeed, but not painful. While having the test performed, I envisioned someone plucking each of my nerves like one plucks the strings of a guitar. After the test I did not have any lasting effects and I spent the rest of the day as usual, playing with my kids.

Medical Supplies
Medical Supplies | Source

The EMG

An EMG (electromyography) is used to measure the electrical activity of muscles. The test is used to diagnose maladies that affect the proper function and/or strength of muscles. A neurologist performs the test and inserts a fine, wire electrode through the skin and into the muscle using a long needle. If you have ever had a shot that hit the muscle, you know that it hurts like crazy. An EMG is no different.

I had an EMG a year ago, and before I went for the appointment I researched the topic on the Internet. I found medical information and procedures for the test all over the place. What I did not find, and what I was looking for, was a personal account of the test to help me prepare for it. After my test, I understood why I did not find a personal account. Surely all the neurologists spend their evenings finding such accounts and erasing them from the face of the Earth. Otherwise, nobody would ever have the test performed. Before I go further I want to say that if you are going to have the test and you are not prepared for the truth, do not continue reading this. An EMG does provide the neurologist with invaluable information if you do indeed have decreased muscle function and it can be an important part of your care.

Following is my personal account of having an EMG done. It is not nice, I am going to be brutally honest, and it may scare you away from the test if you are about to have one. Scaring people is not my intention at all. I simply want to provide information for people who truly want it. I was not prepared for my EMG because I could not find similar information. That said, even if I had found the information, I still would have gone for my test, because the information provided at the appointment was extremely important to my health.

Doctor's patient room
Doctor's patient room | Source

The EMG I had was performed on the entire left side of my body from shoulder to foot, including my hand and arm. For the test, I had to change into a hospital gown and rest on my side, facing away from my neurologist. The first needle went into my calf. I could hear what sounded like an out of tune radio trying to come in clear. The neurologist turned the needle inside my muscle and it was very painful, but tolerable. The pain only lasted a moment before the neurologist pulled the needle out of my muscle. The second needle went into the outer arch of my foot and I barely felt it go in. I was later told the more muscle you have, the worse the EMG hurts. Evidently I don't have any muscle in that part of my foot. I don't remember where all the rest of the needles went, but I do remember getting one in my left hand and one in my lower back on my left side. If you are going because you think you may have carpal tunnel syndrome, don't worry too much about the EMG. The needle in my hand was placed into the meaty area between my pointer finger and thumb - and it didn't hurt much at all. While I do not have carpal tunnel syndrome, I have read that it causes the muscles in your hand to deteriorate. Keeping in mind the statement that the EMG needle hurts more when you have more muscle, it only makes sense that an EMG for carpal tunnel syndrome would not be very painful. However, the needle that went into my lower back is a completely different story. The actual insertion of the needle into the skin is not what truly hurt; it was every turn of the needle the neurologist made while inside my muscle that threw me into a panic. After what seemed like hours, but was really only seconds, my body reacted instinctively to the intense pain and my fist shot out at my neurologist. Luckily, I only made contact with the cart because my neurologist saw me coming and had time to roll his seat back. At that time, I decided I was finished with the test and my neurologist agreed with me. The test results came back within normal range, so I feel as though I went through the test for no reason and I hope to never have to go through the test again because it was the most painful experience I have ever been through. On the other hand, I am glad I had the test to rule out what was originally suspected.

It is my hope that this information gets to patients who feel the need to prepare for similar tests. I often ease my anxiety of something by learning as much as possible about that thing. Since I was unable to find honest and accurate information about the above procedures, it is my desire to offer that information to others.

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Comments 87 comments

Phil 2 years ago

Before I had my EMG I took a pain pill that l had for my bad back and I felt no pain in the 18 areas that were tested. That plus the doctor was good. FYI


monica 4 years ago

After struggling with pain and going back and forth once every month to a pain clinic off and on for the past 5 yrs, my Dr. Has suggested a nerve test to be done. I have no. Insurance and when I did the doctors told me pain meds were the only way to go. I stay afraid and depressed all the. Time,my muscles ache, I have a bulgeing disc,spinal stenosis,and sciactica, but yet no one is taking me serious. The last mri I had a year ago whoever read the results doesn't think my disorder isn't that bad,however I wished they could live in this body for one week and then tell me again that its really not anything severe enough to exclude me from further treatment such. As an orthopedic surgeon, I'm trying everything I no to do to get some kind of insurance, I'm not suicidal but I now understand why people have killed themselves because between the pain and depression and Drs leaving you out in the cold to die just isn't right. I really could use some advice if anyone can relate to what I'm trying to say. Thanks,Monica


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Hi Rach, I will keep you in my thoughts throughout tomorrow. Hopefully this will go smoothly for you. I've heard it can really depend on the doctor who performs the test.


rach 4 years ago

i have to have an emg today and totally freaking out about it. i had one done when i was a kid but they only did it in my arm, aaaargh so so scared, but thanks so much for the helpful info.


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Hi David Warren, my newest partner in crime (in a totally noncommittal way hahah). I appreciate another opinion on these tests from someone who has already been through them. Luckily for me these were a few years back and I have NOT gotten them done again (yes MRI no to the others). But it makes me very sad to know you deal with these tests on a more-than-once basis. As for the medical treatment pic, don’t some of the test just seem barbaric?! Thanks for reading David.


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David Warren 4 years ago from Nevada

Hi Ardie!

As a patient who has had all of the tests in this hub several times I feel qualified to tell you what a great hub this is! I have found that doctors that perform EMG and nerve conduction tests will vary dramatically in terms of how much physical pain is involved. I had to laugh when I saw the torture or medical treatment pic, as the first time I had those two tests I really thought it was torture. My current pain management doctor is phenomenal and a pro at making these tests the least painful as possible. Voted up and useful!


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Hello Kelly, perhaps it is better that you didn't read this before...so it didn't scare you out of having the test!! But how sad to be in pain just to hold your darling. I hope everything heals quickly and you get good results back from the test.


Kelly 4 years ago

I had an EMG today, wish I had read this yesterday :) I now have bruises on both sides of my hand, my almost 2 year old keeps wanting to be held and I about go through the roof in pain. I must have A LOT of muscle between my thumb and pointer finger. OUCH! Thanks for the info!


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Hi Melinda, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’m sorry you had to go through these tests. It’s a pity your doctor’s office didn’t think enough to tell you about all the different things to avoid so you can get accurate test results! I don’t blame you for not going through the test again. It’s painful and it DOES cost a lot for your health care insurance. I hope the doc is able to set up something to help you regain feeling and minimize effects of the carpal tunnel.

Hello David, I would say I can’t believe the techs treated you that way but sadly I CAN believe it. He couldn’t find the panic button? Then no thanks I will come back another day when you’re a little more organized. As for shoving you in the MRI even when you voiced concerns – why didn’t they mention the option of an open MRI? Oy – I won’t even get started on this. What a mess for you all the way around. I hope the next time you go in you take meds to be more comfortable and the tech is a little more compassionate than your last one!


David Searles 4 years ago

I had a MRI scheduled for a hospital in south central Vermont, anyone wishing to know just which one send me an email davidasearles at yahoo dot com. When I made the appointment I told them I would have a hard time lying on my back for any length of time - "oh we'll give you some pillows to put under your legs" I had no idea in advance of what to expect, you'd think they they could have a little booklet they could give you in advance! As the guy was sliding me in he told me that he we supposed to give me a button to push if any trouble occurred BUT THAT HE COULDN'T FIND IT so he pushed me in anyway. I'm a big guy, I have a hard time sitting in a regular airline seat, this was like putting a pimento into an olive, the top of the tube was literally 6 inches from my face. Lucky for me my back started to hurt right away and I realized that I wasn't going to be able to lay still for 2 minutes, let alone a half hour, and I screamed for him to get me the hell out of there before he started the damned thing. It was only afterward did he tell me that when they made they appointment they could have had my doctor give me some valium, or they could have even given me some right there I.V. had they known about it in advance. Truly, the mechanic who takes care of my old beat up car gives me and my car far more professional and personalized service than I got there. To me there is no excuse whatsoever for anyone to have to endure an enclosed MRI. (essentially it'd be like being locked in an empty oil barrel with about 4 kids beating on the sides of it with rake handles while you're in there!!)


Melinda 4 years ago

I had an EMG this past friday and I cried through it the whole time. For over a year I have been wearing a carpal tunnel splint with increasing weakness, pain and numbness in my thumb, index finger, and middle finger in addition to shooting pains from my wrist to my mid forearm. I was only told not to use lotions when i came in. The test was awful and is something I will never do again. then the dr told me the test was negative!! I said negative how do you figure? My symptoms when you did your evaluation indicated and you said carpal tunnel now because of the negative results i have to start from square one again. she offered therapy to which i replied, and how is therapy going to help me regain the feeling and sensation in my fingers palm and wrist? to which she had no answer of course. Last night i was doing research on the so called EMG Test and found that 15% of all people get negative results when in fact they actually do have carpal tunnel syndrome. I also found that you should not intake caffine or nicotine before the test nor should you take ANY Centeral Nervous System Stimulants 5 to 6 days before the test. well i drank coffee that morning smoked a few cigaretts before the test and was taking my ADD/ADHD medication adderall the day before which is a cns stimulate. I researched my pamphlets i got from the hand surgery center and there is no mention of any of these factors. The stupid thing is the dr knew almost 3 months before i got the test that I was on that medication, that i smoke and that i intake caffine. Why was I not told about that? I feel like i went through all that pain last friday for nothing. Not to mention waste my healthcare benefits.

But I will not do that test again they can cut my hand off before i do that thing again.


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Hello cclitgirl! I almost missed your comment DOH! I didn't hate doctors until I had to go through all these tests and then some. Now I am terrified of the doctor and have what is called "white coat anxiety". I had these tests a few years back so hopefully they arent so bad anymore. The EMG is the only one I couldn't tolerate EVER again. The other two? Not so bad


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Melovy!!! I hope everything turns out to be alright. It really wasn't all that bad for the MRI - my advice is to close your eyes before you get slid in and then dont open them again until you are pulled out. Meditate, nap, come up with writing topics...anything.


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Melovy 4 years ago from UK

I am having an MRI tomorrow so this was very useful. It doesn’t sound too bad and I’m glad I’m not having an EMG! Thanks for this useful hub.


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cclitgirl 4 years ago from Western NC

Wow. If I ever have to deal with medical stuff, I'm coming here to refresh my mind on what it's all about. This information actually helps to calm my nerves - I HATE doctors. :P Voted up and SHARING.


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Hi Kristen :( I always hate hearing when someone has to go through tests. Then as if that's not bad enough to hear the tests were inconclusive grrr. I shared my experience here because I went through this same painful test and got inconclusive results. And if I had known how bad this could be I might not have gone through with it!! I hope you find out something to help you heal and recover. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment - I really like to know others are finding this helpful. Take care!


Kristen 4 years ago

This has been really helpful with me and my hand surgeon. He sent me through a bone scan after I expressed great concern because I am VERY sinsitive to medications and some fruit. My surgeon did not take me seriously and made me do the scan anyway. Well I had a REALLY nasty reaction to the dye and it burned me so bad the vein it went through come to the surface of the skin and turned this almost black color for a week. Then my muscles started to twitch on there own.

I watched my husband do an EMG so that the doc could basically tell my husband it was a waste of time. Now my hand surgeon wants me to do that too because the bone scan gave him results that he was not even wanting. It showed NOTHING. Thank you for being honest about the EMG. SO far every test I have gone through I am worse when I get out of it. Thank you.


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Hi Jennifer, first I am so sorry you have to deal with pain every night. Nobody should live that way. Second, I think you should still do the test. Even if you find out that the pain isn’t due to work you will be a step closer to figuring out why you do have the pain and that much closer to a treatment. I feel so badly for you but I take comfort in the fact that your boyfriend is understanding and supportive. I don’t know if the test can indeed pinpoint the time the symptoms started. Even if this is from an old injury the physical work may have inflamed an issue from before. Stay strong and hopefully someone with a medical background can answer your question more in-depth.


soscared 4 years ago

Hi, I am commenting on the information you have given regarding the EMG Test. Thank you so much for this. I was told today that I was going to need one done on both of my arms and hands and possibly shoulders. I had no idea how bad this could really hurt until now, however, this is EXACTLY what I wanted to know, so again, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

I work for UPS as a Pre Loader (load the packages from the moving belt onto the "brown trucks" and this is a really physical job. Did I mention I was a female. And not one of those burly female types either, just a fit, 5'9" 44 yr old who is healthy, or at least I thought who wanted to get on with a Fortune 500 company for the long haul. Well that part accomplished, but now I am suffering from the intense, unbearable, throbbing pain in my forearms and hands; numbness in my hands, fingers and wrists that wont go away; and very when this happens my arms are very sensitive to anyone touching them anywhere at all. This happens every single night and has been for about three months now. I wake up in this "pain" and cry myself back to sleep because nothing makes it feel better.... Nothing. My boyfriend, bless his heart just holds on to me and hugs me every single time I wake up, sometimes even cries with me. Then falls asleep after I finally do, until I wake up again with the same scenario. But enough of the sob story...

Well, Im pretty sure its work related, but can't actually prove it until this test is done. Supposedly this test will reveal how long ago this muscle pain, burning and numbness actually started to develop i.e. from my job with UPS or before hand (no pun intended)?

Does anyone know if that is actually something the results will reveal, the date any of these symptoms started? The reason that I am asking, is because about twelve years ago I did have an episode where my hands were going numb from using my computer. But, it was nothing at all like what I am going through now. I would hate to have suffered from something like this test only to tell me that its NOT related to my job now. PLEASE understand, I am NOT out to try to get away with something. This pain and suffering in new, and very real. Something I have never experienced until now and it is restricting me from doing a lot of normal things. I just need to know what I am up against. Thank you to anyone and everyone who can answer my questions. And one more time, THANK YOU ARDIE for posting this very informative blog. Jennifer


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Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland Author

Hi tsmog :) Everything is ok as can be. Thanks for asking. My diagnosis is explained in my Arnold Chiari Hub - a boring read hahah

Your story is hilarious! I wish I could've been there to see the nurse's reaction...not many people can lower their pulse! Quite impressive ;)


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