A bone scan is a diagnostic imaging test used to determine if your bone is damaged, either from cancer or from some other cause. It is a form of nuclear medicine, which uses small amounts of radioactive materials that are attracted to specific parts of the body. The scan will detect cancer that has started in your bones, as well as cancer that has metastasized (spread) to the bone from other areas of your body. It can also track how cancer in the bone is responding to treatment.
You may have a bone scan of part of your body; however, generally, the entire body is scanned. If the results indicate bone damage that may be caused by cancer, additional tests may be necessary. These tests may include a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan , or a biopsy .
The medical team
A bone scan can be done at the radiology department of a hospital or at an outpatient imaging center. It is performed by a nuclear medicine technologist who has been specially trained and certified to conduct the test. The nuclear medicine technologist is supervised by a radiologist (a medical doctor who specializes in using imaging tests to diagnose disease) or a nuclear medicine physician. The scan results are interpreted by a radiologist.
Questions to ask your doctor
Before having a bone scan, consider asking your doctor the following questions:
- Who will perform the bone scan?
- What will happen during the bone scan?
- How long will the procedure take?
- What are the risks and benefits of having a bone scan?
- How accurate is a bone scan at finding metastases?
- Is the facility accredited to perform bone scans?
- When will I learn the results?
- Who will explain the results to me?
- What further tests will be necessary if the test results find evidence of cancer?
Preparing for the procedure
Generally, no special preparations will be needed before your bone scan. For example, you will be able to eat and drink normally before your appointment.
Tell your doctor about all medications you are taking, as well as any drug allergies or other medical conditions you have. Medicines that contain barium or bismuth, in particular, can affect the test results.
Women should tell their doctors if they are breast-feeding, or if there is any chance that they are pregnant.
You will be asked to sign a consent form that states you understand the benefits and risks of the bone scan and agree to have the test done. Talk with your doctor about any concerns you have about the bone scan.
During the procedure
When you arrive for your bone scan, you will receive an injection of a radioactive tracer (a radioactive substance that the camera follows as it moves through your body) in a vein in your arm. The injection of the tracer will feel like a small sting, but there is no burning or other sensation as the tracer moves through your body. The tracer takes one to four hours to move through your body.
While the tracer circulates, you will need to drink as many as six glasses of water. By urinating frequently, you will remove any of the radioactive material that has not collected in your bones.
You will need to remove jewelry and other metal objects. In addition, you may be asked to change into a hospital gown.
The technologist who is performing the scan will help you lie on your back on a padded exam table in the scan room and will position a large scanning camera above your body. The camera creates images based on the radioactive tracer that has been absorbed by your bones.
During the scan, the camera will move slowly around your body. You will need to lie still during the scan because motion may blur the pictures. The technologist may ask you to move into different positions during the scan to get pictures from different angles.
The scan will take about 30 to 60 minutes to complete, depending on the part of your body being scanned. Bone scans are not painful, but you may become uncomfortable lying still for the examination.
After the procedure
You can expect to resume your normal activities immediately after your bone scan, including driving. You should not feel any side effects from the radiation tracer or the procedure itself. If you notice pain, redness, or swelling around the injection site, call your doctor.
Last Updated: February 25, 2011