Arthrograpy is a procedure involving multiple x rays of a joint using a fluoroscope, or a special piece of x-ray equipment, which shows an immediate x-ray image. A contrast medium (in this case, a an iodine solution) injected into the joint area helps highlight structures of the joint.

(Fig 1.12.)
An x-ray image of the knees of a patient with cysts caused by rheumatoid arthritis. The cysts appear as dark areas just below the knee joints.


Frequently, arthrography is ordered to determine the cause of unexplained joint pain. This fluoroscopic procedure can show the internal workings of specific joints and outline soft tissue structures. The procedure may also be conducted to identify problems with the ligaments, cartilage, tendons, or the joint capsule of the hip, shoulder, knee, ankle or wrist. An arthrography procedure may locate cysts in the joint area, evaluate problems with the joint's arrangement and function, or indicate the need for joint replacement (prostheses). The most commonly studied joints are the knee and shoulder.


Patients who are pregnant or may be pregnant should not have this procedure unless the benefits of the findings outweigh the risk of radiation exposure. Patients who are known to be allergic to iodine need to discuss this complication with their physician. Patients who have a known allergy to shellfish are more likely to be allergic to iodine contrast.


Arthrograpy may be referred to as "joint radiography" or "x rays of the joint." The term arthrogram may be used interchangeably with arthrography. The joint area will be cleaned and a local anesthetic will be injected into the tissues around the joint to reduce pain. Next, if fluids are present in the joint, the physician may suction them out (aspirate) with a needle. These fluids may be sent to a laboratory for further study. Contrast agents are then injected into the joint through the same location by attaching the aspirating needle to a syringe containing the contrast medium. The purpose of contrast agents in x-ray procedures is to help highlight details of areas under study by making them opaque. Agents for arthrography are generally air and water-soluble dyes, the most common containing iodine. Air and iodine may be used together or independently. After the contrast agent is administered, the site of injection will be sealed and the patient may be asked to move the joint around to distribute the contrast.

Before the contrast medium can be absorbed by the joint itself, several films will be quickly taken under the guidance of the fluoroscope. The patient will be asked to move the joint into a series of positions, keeping still between positioning. Sometimes, the patient will experience some tingling or discomfort during the procedure, which is normal and due to the contrast. Following fluoroscopic tracking of the contrast, standard x rays of the area may also be taken. The entire procedure will last about one hour.


It is important to discuss any known sensitivity to local anesthetics or iodine prior to this procedure. A physician should explain the procedure and the risks associated with contrast agents and ask the patient to sign an informed consent. If iodine contrast will be administered, the patient may be instructed not to eat before the exam. The timeframe of fasting may extend from only 90 minutes prior to the exam up to the night before. There is no other preparation necessary.


The affected joint should be rested for approximately 12 hours following the procedure. The joint may be wrapped in an elastic bandage and the patient should receive instructions on the care and changing of the bandage. Noises in the joint such as cracking or clicking are normal for a few days following arthrography. These noises are the result of liquid in the joints. Swelling may also occur and can be treated with application of ice or cold packs. A mild pain reliever can be used to lessen pain in the first few days. However, if any of these symptoms persist for more than a few days, patients are advised to contact their physician.


In some patients iodine can cause allergic reactions, ranging from mild nausea to severe cardiovascular or nervous system complications. Since the contrast dye is put into a joint, rather than into a vein, allergic reactions are rare. Facilities licensed to perform contrast exams should meet requirements for equipment, supplies and staff training to handle a possible severe reaction. Infection or joint damage are possible, although not frequent, complications of arthrography.

Normal results

A normal arthrography exam will show proper placement of the dye or contrast medium throughout the joint structures, joint space, cartilage and ligaments.

Abnormal results

The abnormal placement of dye may indicate rheumatoid arthritis, cysts, joint dislocation, rupture of the rotator cuff, tears in the ligament and other conditions. The entire lining of the joint becomes opaque from the technique, which allows the radiologist to see abnormalities in the intricate workings of the joint. In the case of recurrent shoulder dislocations, arthrography results can be used to evaluate damage. Patients with hip prostheses may receive arthrography to evaluate proper placement or function of their prostheses.