What is an EMG, and how does it work?

What Is Electromyography (EMG)?

Electrodiagnostic studies consist of both nerve conduction studies (NCS) and electromyography (EMG).

These studies are often performed together and the combination of the two is abbreviated as an EMG/NCS or, more commonly, just EMG.

They work in combination to measure the electrical activity in nerves and muscles and are used to evaluate nerve and muscle injury.

These injuries may be due to nerve compression, primary nerve or muscle diseases, or secondary injuries related to other diseases.

An EMG helps your physician determine if your nerves and muscles are healthy and, if not, determine the cause of the nerve or muscle injury.

What Conditions Can the Testing Diagnose?

  • A pinched nerve in the neck or back (possibly related to ruptured disk or arthritis)
  • A pinched nerve in the arm or leg such as carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Muscle disorders such as muscular dystrophy or myopathy
  • Neuromuscular disorders such as myasthenia gravis

Nerve Condition Studies

Nerve conduction studies (NCS) are performed to determine how well your nerves conduct signals.

The procedure involves stimulating the nerves with a small amount of electricity and recording how each nerve conducts this signal along its course.

Electrodes in the form of stickers or wires record the responses of these stimulations. The electrodes are attached to a computer that analyzes the signals and produces a visual representation of them on its screen.

Your physician interprets the results by making measurements of the responses and correlating them to your symptoms.


An electromyogram (EMG) uses a fine wire electrode to evaluate the electrical activity of muscles.

Muscles are controlled by nerves and it is possible to tell if there is an injury to a nerve by evaluating how the muscles it supplies and leg muscles can be tested to evaluate an injury in the back.

The fine wire electrode used in EMG is slightly larger than an acupuncture needle but not nearly as big as a hollow point needle used for blood draws or IVs.

The electrode is connected by wire to a computer where the signal is analyzed and displayed as an image on the screen and broadcast as a sound, typically a popping noise heard with muscle contraction.

The muscles are tested both at rest (to make sure there are not any abnormal spontaneous signals that should not be there) and then with muscle contraction (to make sure the muscle is firing normally).

What Can I Expect?

An EMG takes about 30 minutes to an hour to complete. The nerve conduction studies are commonly performed first, followed by the EMG.

The electrical stimulations used in nerve conduction studies typically feel like getting a rubber band snapped against your skin.

Usually, three to four nerves are tested in an affected limb and, if necessary, a few in an unaffected limb are tested for comparison.

The EMG feels like getting your skin pinched with electrode insertion and may cause a dull ache, but is generally well tolerated. Generally, nine to twelve muscles are tested.

Arm, forearm, and hand muscles are tested to evaluate neck and upper limb injuries. Thigh, leg, and foot muscles are used to evaluate low back and lower limb injuries.

Risks of an EMG are very rare.

What Is Electromyography (EMG)?


An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test used to detect problems in the electrical activity in the brain.

Your brain cells communicate with each other through tiny electrical impulses. An EEG measures this activity by placing electrodes on your head.

How the Test Is Performed

You will be asked to lie on your back or in a reclining chair. 16 to 25 electrodes will be placed in different positions around your scalp.

The electrodes are attached to wires connected to the EEG machine which will record the impulses. The machine converts the electrical impulses into patterns that can be seen on a computer screen and saved to a disk.

Why Is This Test Performed?

EEG is used to assist in the diagnosis of seizures, causes of confusion, and sleep disorders, and to evaluate head injuries, tumors, degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, and abnormal changes in the body chemistry that affects the brain.

Make an Appointment with an OrthoNeuro Neurological Specialist Today!

If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, schedule an appointment with one of our Board Certified Orthopedic Neurologists at one of our 7 convenient locations throughout Greater Columbus. 

We will evaluate your unique lifestyle and goals to determine which type of treatment is best for you. Best of all, most patients can be seen within 24 hours of making an appointment.

Our Neurologist

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