Bone Scan

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2018

A bone scan helps find cancer that has started in or spread to the bones. It can also help monitor how well treatment is working for cancer in the bone.

How does a bone scan work?

A bone scan is a nuclear medicine test. This means that the procedure uses a very small amount of a radioactive substance, called a tracer. The tracer is injected into a vein. It shows possible cancer in areas where too much or too little tracer has been absorbed by the body.

Most of the time, the whole body is scanned during this test. The results can show bone damage that may be caused by cancer. If the scan shows bone damage, more tests may be needed. These tests may include 2 other types of scans. One is a computed tomography (CT) scan, and the other is a positron-emission tomography and computed tomography (PET-CT) scans. Further testing may also include a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or a biopsy.

Who does my bone scan?

A specially trained and certified nuclear medicine technologist performs the test. A nuclear medicine physician is a medical doctor who uses tracers to diagnose and treat disease. A radiologist or a nuclear medicine physician oversees the technologist. A radiologist is a medical doctor who uses imaging tests to diagnose disease. The radiologist or nuclear medicine physician interprets the scan results.

Bone scans can be performed at:

  • The radiology or nuclear medicine department of a hospital

  • An outpatient imaging center

Getting ready for a bone scan

Usually, you do not need special preparation before a bone scan. For example, you can eat and drink normally before your appointment. But tell your health care team about all medications you take. Medicines that contain barium or bismuth can affect the test results. Your doctor may advise you not to take them before your scan.

Also, mention if you have any drug allergies or other medical conditions. Women should tell their health care team if they are breastfeeding or may be pregnant.

You should also check with your insurance provider before your scan. Find out how much of the test’s cost will be covered and how much you will need to pay.

Once you arrive for your scan, you will be asked to sign a consent form. It states that you understand the risks of the bone scan and agree to have the test. Talk with your health care team about any concerns you have about the test.

Before the test, you will remove any metal objects, such as jewelry. You may also need to change into a hospital gown.

During the bone scan

First, a tracer will be injected into your body through a vein in your arm. The injection may sting a little bit. But you will not feel the tracer move through your body. It takes 1 to 4 hours for your bones to absorb the tracer.

While you wait, you will drink several glasses of water. By urinating frequently, you will remove radioactive material that has not collected in your bones. The amount of radioactivity in your body is safe for others to be nearby. It is less than the amount from a normal x-ray.

Next, you will lie on your back on an exam table. The technologist will place a large scanning camera above your body. You will need to remain still to prevent blurry pictures.

During the scan, the camera will move slowly around your body. It takes pictures of the tracer in your bones. The technologist may ask you to change positions during the scan. This helps to get pictures from different angles.

A whole-body scan takes about 1 hour to complete. The scan is not painful. But you may find lying still uncomfortable.

After the bone scan

After your bone scan, you may return to your usual activities. This includes driving.

You should not feel any side effects from the tracer or the test itself. But your doctor may ask you to drink lots of water for the next 1 to 2 days. This flushes out any tracer that may be left in your body. Typically, all of the radioactive material is gone after 2 days.

Call your health care team right away if you have pain, redness, or swelling around the injection site on your arm.

Questions to ask your health care team

Consider asking these questions before having a bone scan:

  • Who will perform the bone scan?

  • Is the radiologist or nuclear medicine physician board-certified?

  • Is the facility accredited by the American College of Radiology to perform bone scans?

  • What will happen during the bone scan?

  • How long will the scan take?

  • What are the risks and benefits of having a bone scan?

  • How accurately can a bone scan find cancer?

  • When and how will I learn the results?

  • Who will explain the results to me?

  • What other tests will I need if the bone scan finds signs of cancer? 

Related Resources

Bone Cancer

Do Bone Scans Show Cancer?

ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: When Cancer Spreads to the Bone (PDF)

More Information General Nuclear Medicine

National Library of Medicine: Bone Scan