What To Expect When You Have An Electromyography (EMG) 

Yes, I had one of those painful nerve tests.

In January 2020, I was sent for a nerve test on my legs and arms, because of the weakness I often feel in my hands and legs. My doctor and I have always been worried I might have a larger underlying health condition that kind of brings all my other health conditions together – I have trigeminal neuralgia and a rare retinopathy, amongst other things.

Sometimes, I lose feeling in my hands completely and drop my phone. My legs have always caused me problems since I was about 15 – yes, I did have to wear some very attractive compression stockings all the time when I was in my late teens, early twenties! I struggle walking in extreme temperatures, which is pretty strange, because that’s also when my face hurts the most too! My veins behind my knees are painful and almost completely black and raised (so attractive to look at!), but I struggle most with a weak feeling when I walk for long periods of time, or up or down stairs. My neurologist thought it might be time to look into my muscles further, so sent me off for an electromyography.. but we’ll just call it an EMG!

An EMG looks at the condition of your muscles and the nerves that control them and translates the electrical signals into something a doctor can read, to know how well the signals are working. It comes in two parts and you may need one, or both parts doing, depending on your symptoms – a nerve conduction study and a needle EMG.

EMG tests can diagnose muscle and nerve disorders, but they are widely known for being really painful. Piece of cake for me – my friends pointed out – I have the ‘suicide disease’, I think I can handle anything! I was still anxious to attend and I still found it really painful (spoiler alert: I cried!)

The Preparation

I arranged for both me and my husband to take a day off work. Everyone does the standard ‘quick Google’ before an appointment, but this procedure was even described as painful in the leaflet I was sent by the hospital! Further digging online didn’t help, so I decided it would be best to have a morning appointment and then a lazy afternoon.

I dressed in comfortable, loose clothing that I’d easily be able to take off to change into a hospital gown – a baggy tshirt and jogging bottoms. I also shaved my legs. I figured I should at least make a little effort for the doctor who would be conducting the test!

When I Arrived

When I got to the hospital, I was pretty cold, because it was January and I’m always cold anyway! A lovely nurse soaked my feet in warm water to warm my body through, whilst we waited for the doctor, and it really relaxed me too.

I was offered a hospital gown, but because I was wearing pretty big knickers, I was allowed to just wear those with my big tshirt instead of getting changed. I was offered the gown for modesty, but I told them I wasn’t too bothered, if they were happy for me to stay as I was. I now feel the gown would have got in the way too.

My husband was also allowed to stay with me, which was such a comfort and a big bonus!

The Nerve Study

The first part of the test didn’t really hurt, it just felt strange and very slightly uncomfortable. The doctor asked me to lie down on the bed and covered one half of my body with a towel, because he only needed to test one half of my body. I asked about this and was told that if you have different symptoms in different parts of your body, they will do the tests on both sides.

The doctor placed small sensors, called surface electrodes, on different parts of my feet, legs, hands and arms at different times. A small electric shock went through whichever part of my body the sensor was placed on, causing the body part to involuntarily flinch. It was really strange to watch, but so interesting. The doctor also measured different areas where he was placing the sensors and said that for bigger people, he will send a bigger shock! I am tiny, so I feel like I got the least intense shock possible. The sensors were all removed at the end of this part of the test, with the whole thing lasting only about ten minutes.

The Needle EMG

I’ve had to ask my husband to fill some of the blanks in, because I had my eyes closed the most part and, for the rest, I was crying. My pain tolerance has been a bit all over the place since I got trigeminal neuralgia and I don’t really know why. I can stand really intense pain in my mouth, but a little cat scratch another day may make me cry! My tolerance fluctuates and, truth be told, before neuralgia, I could be a bit of a baby.

There’s no nice way to say that the doctor inserted long, thin needles into my muscles and then put an electric current through the needle. This was made even more painful when the doctor told me to tense the muscle (and how to do so, which way to move) on demand. The needle was a couple of inches long and, at times, was inserted the whole way into my muscle, such as into my thigh, close to my groin. Sometimes it could only be inserted part of the way, such as into the muscle in my hand, close to my thumb.

I squeezed my husband’s hand and I swore at the doctor. I cried, I said I couldn’t do it, but I did. I knew the results would help my neurologist put together a better picture for whatever diagnosis I end up with.

The doctor was really respectful, kept my legs covered when he was working on my arm and checked I was okay throughout the test, especially whenever he had to get close to my underwear!

I asked my husband how long this part of the test took and he said it probably lasted around fifteen minutes, but to me it felt like a lot longer.


I struggled to get dressed afterwards, because my muscles had been through such a work out and my husband had to put my joggers back on me. As I was leaving, the doctor told me that my results would be sent back to my neurologist within a couple of weeks. I couldn’t walk very quickly, because it felt like I’d run a marathon. I could move just fine by myself, but taking the stairs in the hospital was pretty difficult – really love when the lift is out of order, completely accessible..

I bruised pretty quickly afterwards and I was slightly achey for about three days afterwards, more in my legs than my arms. My hand did bruise, but it didn’t stop me typing at work, or using my phone.

The pain was over as soon as the test was done.

Sometimes, it’s worth having a diagnostic test that isn’t pleasant, if recommended by a medical professional. In the long run, I was grateful I’d had the test done.

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What To Expect When..

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