What To Expect When You Get An EMG and Nerve Conduction Study
Carpal Tunnel and EMG Testing
I have had carpal tunnel issues for over ten years, my doctor recently wanted to check the severity of it. So surprise, surprise he scheduled me for an EMG and Nerve Conduction Study.
To say that I was nervous about this testing is the understatement of the year. It literally terrified me beyond belief. I do not think that I have dreaded anything more in quite some time!
Facing My Fear
Over the past twenty years I have been through a lot of frightening and painful medical procedures. Ranging from spinal taps, hour-long closed MRI’s, multiple kidney stones, stents, surgery, nuclear heart tests, chemical stress tests and more. If I say I am nervous about medical procedures, then I have good reason to be.
I know what severe pain feels like. So when I began to read about other people’s experiences with EMG and Nerve Conduction studies, I was afraid.
When nurses won’t look you in the eye and doctors say to expect an unpleasant experience, your heart automatically starts beating harder. Dread is the name of the game.
I watched videos of other people getting EMG’s and Nerve Conduction Studies and tried to find an accurate description of what it would feel like. Every single description fell short of truly explaining what I could expect. I felt like I was not getting the true picture, that they were either leaving something out or grossly exaggerating.
So it was with much trepidation that I kept my EMG and Nerve Conduction Study appointment. The day of the test I felt like a helpless animal being led to the slaughter. I was a nervous wreck. My one thought was this, “If I make it through this test I am going to write an accurate account of what to expect, so that no one has to go into this thing blindly fearful again.”
What is an EMG?
An EMG also known as an electromyogram measures the electrical activity of muscles when they’re at rest and at work. It is used to find out if there is damage to muscle tissue, nerves or the area where the muscle and nerves join. In my case, since my particular issue was with my arm and hand, it is those places that were tested.
How is an EMG performed?
To be honest, this part of the test is the one I dreaded the most. Needles are not a favorite of mine and this test does involve needles, albeit very tiny ones.
Differences in opinion obviously exist about which is worse the EMG or the Nerve Conduction Study. Generally the majority leans towards the EMG being the most painful.
The areas to be tested are cleaned with alcohol and a thin needle electrode, similar to an acupuncture needle is placed into a muscle. This electrode is attached by wires to a machine.
Once in place the electrical activity in that muscle is recorded both at rest and at work. The electrode is then moved either to a different part of the muscle or to a different muscle entirely. This electrical activity shows up on a video screen as wavy, curvy lines.
They asked me to lay on a table for this test and relax. I had to laugh as I was as far from relaxed as I could possibly be.
Was it painful?
That was the question that I wanted answered the most before hand. When I asked the technician, he said it was “uncomfortable.” The nurse said, “Well, it is not something I would willingly volunteer for.” Big surprise there, right?
So what does it really feel like? I would compare it to a bee sting, it was quick, it did hurt but it was bearable. I did not feel the needle moving as some people had suggested. It generally felt like it does when you are getting a shot. A weird pricking sensation.
I had several small bruises and one place on my hand that swelled up and felt like a bee stinger was still in my skin for an hour afterwards. Above all, I would say that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst possible pain, I would rate this test around a 4 on the pain scale.
It was definitely uncomfortable. It did hurt, although for the most part the pain was quick and it was relieved as soon as the needle was removed. It does compare to the burning, stinging pain of a bee bite.
What is a Nerve Conduction Study?
A nerve conduction study measures the speed of electrical impulse through a nerve. It can be used to determine nerve damage.
How is a Nerve Conduction Study Performed?
To perform this test several flat, metal electrodes are attached to your skin with tape. The nerve being tested is stimulated with brief, mild electrical shock.
I was extremely anxious about this test as well. Generally this test is performed before the EMG needle test if you are having both done. So you have the Nerve Conduction first and then the EMG.
Was the Nerve Conduction Study painful?
Personally, I thought the equipment that they used to generate the mild electric shock looked like a taser gun without a trigger/handle. They started the test slowly with a weak shock and worked their way up to the stronger shocks.
The first shock sensation literally felt like I had hit my funny bone. It was a severe, tingling sensation like my arm had fallen asleep. By the time the strongest shock was introduced, I fully expected what I would feel. My arm visually jumped from the current. It was not necessarily extremely painful, just very uncomfortable.
The nurse compared it to what it feels like if you turn the setting on a TENS machine too high.
If I could compare it to anything, I would say it felt a bit like I had touched an electrical outlet with a damp hand. A little shocking, but not too painful. It was definitely bearable. But, then again I have a high threshold for pain. As a survivor of multiple kidney stones and kidney stone surgery, this was no comparison!
I definitely would say that my anxiety was the worst part of the whole thing.
My blood pressure was sky-high, due to nerves! If someone would have explained it to me before hand, I do believe I would not have dreaded it quite so much.
It was no picnic and I wouldn’t want to do it again any time soon, but I lived and it really wasn’t too awfully bad.
No worse than a bee sting with a little electrical buzzy/funny bone pain to go with it. Maybe a better comparison would be a flu shot and hitting your shin on the coffee table type of pain? It will make you squirm but not scream.
If you are scheduled to have this done. Do not dread it! Relax and know that it is brief and it really is bearable.
How long does it generally take?
The length of the test depends entirely upon how many areas are being tested. My personal test lasted about 50 minutes. But, they only tested my right hand and arm.
Were you sore afterwards?
In a word, yes! It was no worse than what a bruise feels like though. My muscles were sore and felt overused. I had a couple of small bruises on my hand.
One place on my hand where the most painful of the needles was placed swelled up similar to the way a bee sting does. It burned for several hours afterwards. But, again it was all bearable.
Within a couple of days my arm and hand were back to normal and I was glad that I had gotten it done. I have since been told that I will need surgery to release my carpal ligament. Which I am hopeful will relieve the severe arm and hand pain that I have experienced for so long.
In closing I hope this helps to put this experience into reasonable perspective. What felt like a death sentence to me in the beginning, ended up being just an average medical procedure.
Keep calm and breathe. You will get through it!
Have a great week!