Common Tests for Chronic Pain

Medical Tests Commonly Used to Diagnose Chronic Pain

So your doctor has ordered an array of tests to diagnose your chronic pain, some of which may sound a bit intimidating or make you a little nervous. Fear not: chronic pain tests are performed by highly trained and specially certified individuals, and most take very little time to complete. Some tests are scans, designed to detect bone or tissue damage. Others may use electrodes or stimulators to detect problems with nerve conduction.

Imaging and Scans

Most scans are relatively short and painless, however you may have some discomfort if you are asked to change positions or lie in a certain position on the scanning table. For all types of scans, you should notify your doctor if you have any metal present in your body, if you are pregnant or if you have a pacemaker.

  • X-rays may be performed when bone damage is suspected, such as a fracture, a bone spur or degenerative changes from a disease like arthritis. They may be performed in a doctor’s office or in a hospital, depending on what you are having scanned. X-rays are generally harmless, exposing you to less radiation than the sun.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or an MRI can be used to examine both bone and other soft tissues. An MRI uses powerful magnets to pick up detailed images which can show damage to structures such as ligaments, tendons and nerves. MRIs may be performed in an outpatient clinic or in a hospital, and typically take less than 60 minutes.
  • Computerized Axial Tomography, or a CT Scan can also provide views of bone and soft tissues, and can be performed in a series of cross-sections in the body. Some scans are performed using a series of rotating X-rays while other use dyes for contrast imaging. Contrast scans may require a period of fasting beforehand.
  • Bone Scans provide a clear image of bone pathology, and are performed by injecting radioactive dye into the bloodstream. After a certain amount of time has passed, you are placed into a gamma scanner. Bone scans detect areas of inflammation or infection in and around the bone. They can help diagnose arthritis, bone infections (such as osteomyelitis) and bone tumors. Once the test is complete, the dye is simply absorbed into the body.

Nerve Stimulation and Blocks

Nerve tests may be performed individually or in a combination, and can help determine whether chronic pain is caused by nerve dysfunction or damage. These tests may be more invasive than imaging, and can be uncomfortable. Most nerve tests are performed with electrodes or injections.

  • Electromyography, or EMG testing can help determine whether muscle weakness associated with chronic pain is caused by a neurological problem. An EMG measures muscle contraction with tiny needle-like electrodes that are inserted through the skin. It may be performed in conjunction with a NCV test, and can help diagnose conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome and sciatica.
  • Nerve Conduction Velocity, or NCV testing stimulates nerves through electrodes placed on the skin. These electrodes record the rate of nerve conduction, which may be used in combination with EMG. The nerve conduction rate is interpreted to determine whether the nerve is damaged or functioning abnormally.
  • Nerve Blocks can be performed in addition to or independently of EMG or NCV. Though you may think of a nerve block as a pain treatment, your doctor may choose to trial one to determine whether the source of your chronic pain is a certain nerve. If a nerve block is successful, it may continue to be used as a treatment.


International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. Magnetic Resonance Imaging Information for Patients. Accessed 5/29/09.

Medline Plus. Medical Encyclopedia: Bone Scan. Accessed 5/29/09.

Medline Plus. Medical Encyclopedia: CT Scan. Accessed 5/29/09.

Medline Plus. Medical Encyclopedia: Electromyography. Accessed 5/29/09.

Radiology Info. Bone X-ray (Radiography). Accessed 5/29/09.

University of Colorado Hospital. Chronic Pain Tests & Chronic Pain Treatments at University of Colorado Hospital. Accessed 6/2/09.

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