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Chromosome Analysis

Does this test have other names?

Genetic testing, karyotyping

What is this test?

This test looks for changes, or abnormalities, in the chromosomes that make up your body's DNA, or genetic road map.

Your chromosomes are found in the inner part of your cells, called your cell nucleus. They contain all the genes that have been passed down to you from your mother and father.

Each person normally has 23 pairs of chromosomes in each cell (23 pairs = 46 chromosomes). One of these pairs carries chromosomes called the X and Y chromosomes, which determine whether you will be male or female. If you are male, you have an XY pair. If you are female, you have an XX pair. The other 22 pairs are called autosomes.

Cells for chromosome analysis can come from a blood sample, from inside a bone – called a bone marrow sample, from a swab of cells taken from inside your mouth, or from a sample of your skin or hair. Cells can also be taken from the fluid that surrounds a baby inside a mother's womb. This is called amniocentesis.

Cells taken for chromosome analysis are sent to a lab where they are prepared in a way that allows your chromosomes to be arranged in order from largest to smallest. By looking at your chromosomes under a microscope and taking pictures of them, which is called karyotyping, lab specialists can tell whether you have any abnormal numbers, missing pieces, or extra chromosomes in your cells.

Abnormalities in your chromosomes help doctors diagnose many medical conditions. In some cases, your chromosomes can help your doctor predict a medical problem before you even have symptoms. Chromosome studies done on a developing baby inside a mother's womb can predict problems that a baby may be born with or develop later in life.

Why do I need this test?

You may have this test for a variety of reasons, from helping to diagnose disease to finding out whether you have genes that may be passed on to your children. Here are some reasons to have this test:

  • To help diagnose or plan treatment for a disease if you have symptoms

  • To find out your risk of developing a disease you may have inherited

  • To find out whether you carry genes that may pass a disease to your children

  • To find out whether your unborn child may have a genetic problem

  • To diagnose a genetic problem in a newborn or young child

  • To find out why you are having trouble getting pregnant 

  • To find out why you are having miscarriages, or losing a baby before birth

What other tests might I have along with this test?

Your doctor may also order other types of genetic testing that look for certain genes within your chromosomes. For example, you may have a test called FISH analysis, which looks at specific parts of your chromosomes. You may also have a blood test to look for abnormal proteins that might be a sign certain genes aren't working the way they should.

What do my test results mean?

Many things may affect your lab test results. These include the method each lab uses to do the test. Even if your test results are different from the normal value, you may not have a problem. To learn what the results mean for you, talk with your health care provider.

Normal chromosomes are reported as:

  • 44 autosomes plus two X chromosomes for a woman (karyotype 46, XX)

  • 44 autosomes plus one X and one Y chromosome for a man (karyotype 46, XY)

Your doctor will get a report from the lab that explains any abnormalities found in your or your child's chromosome analysis. A karyotype picture may also be included in the report.

Your doctor should arrange for you to talk with a certified genetic counselor who can help you understand the results of this test.

How is this test done?

This test requires a sample of your cells. Your doctor can get the cells in many ways. These are some options:

  • Taking a blood sample by putting a needle into a vein in your arm.

  • Taking a blood sample from a newborn by making a small prick on the baby's heel.

  • Taking out a sample of cells from the spongy center of a bone, called the bone marrow. Bone marrow cells can give doctors important information about blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.

  • Taking a sample of amniotic fluid by putting a long, thin needle through the pregnant woman's skin and into the uterus.

  • Taking a small piece of tissue. This is called taking a biopsy.

  • Taking a swab of cells from inside your cheek.

Does this test pose any risks?

Each method of taking a sample carries certain risks. Some have more risks than others. Ask your doctor to discuss all the risks and benefits with you before your test.

What might affect my test results?

Depending on how your test is done, certain things may affect your results. Ask your doctor to explain these possibilities to you.

How do I get ready for this test?

Some chromosome analysis tests, such as amniocentesis, bone marrow sampling, or a tissue biopsy, do require special preparation. Ask your doctor how you should prepare for your test. Blood sampling or cheek swabs usually don't need any preparation.