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What Should I Know About Having a Bone Marrow Test?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2016
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If a doctor orders a bone marrow test for you, it means that he or she wants more information about your capacity for blood cell production, or that the doctor wants to look into anemia or a cancer like lymphoma. Bone marrow tests are relatively rare, and many people never need a bone marrow test. If you are one of the people for whom a bone marrow test is requested, being prepared for the test can make the experience less stressful for you.

There are two types of bone marrow tests: bone marrow aspirations, and bone marrow biopsies. In both cases, a sample is taken from the hip, because this bone is large, and it provides an easy target and plentiful marrow for sampling. In a bone marrow aspiration, a thin needle is inserted and used to suck up a small amount of liquid. In a bone marrow biopsy, a larger needle is inserted so that a plug of bone marrow can be removed for testing.

Just because a doctor orders a bone marrow test doesn't mean that you should panic. Your doctor should explain the reason for the test clearly, and provide information about when you can expect results. In addition to the reasons discussed above, people also receive bone marrow tests to test for compatibility as potential bone marrow donors, so you may even find yourself volunteering for a bone marrow test at some point.

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Because a bone marrow test can be painful, patients are often given pain medications before the procedure, along with anti-anxiety medications to reduce tension and stress. Some hospitals recommend not eating before a bone marrow biopsy, in case patients feel nauseous from the medication. Patients should disclose all existing medical conditions, allergies, and medications to their doctors to ensure that a bone marrow test is safe. Anti-clotting medications, for example, could be dangerous.

For the procedure itself, a patient will be shown into a private exam room, asked to change into a hospital gown, and directed to lie on his or her stomach or side, depending on the technician's preference. Once the patient is in position, the buttocks or hip will be swabbed with alcohol and then injected with a local anesthetic, which may cause a pinching sensation. After the anesthetic has set in, a needle is inserted for the test itself. Some pinching or pain may be experienced, especially in the case of a bone marrow biopsy, and the patient should definitely communicate if the pain becomes extreme.

After the procedure, pressure is applied to stop the bleeding, and the patient is usually asked to stay prone for 15 to 20 minutes. A bandage will be applied, and the patient can be sent home. Asking for a friend to drive home is a good idea, as patients sometimes feel woozy after the procedure.

Complications from bone marrow tests are unusual, but the two most common are infections and excessive bleeding. If the site of the test feels sore or becomes tender, hot, or reddish, a doctor should be consulted. If bleeding from the test site persists, this is also cause for a trip to the doctor.

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