Find out about having a bone scan. Read about what it is, how you have it and what happens afterwards.
A bone scan shows up changes or abnormalities in the bones. It is also called a radionuclide scan, scintigram or nuclear medicine test.
A bone scan can look at a particular joint or bone. In cancer diagnosis, it is more usual to scan the whole body.
You are scanned by a large camera (called a gamma camera) that picks up radioactivity.
You have the scan in either the medical physics, nuclear medicine or x-ray department at the hospital. The scan can take up to 60 minutes.
Hot spots can be due to cancer in the bones, but they can also be caused by other medical conditions. Bones can break down and repair for different reasons.
For example, if you have arthritis or an old fracture this might also show up on the scan.
Preparing for your bone scan
You can eat and drink normally before your scan. Take your medicines as normal unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
You have to arrive about 4 hours before your scan. You will get a clinic appointment letter that tells you exactly when you need to arrive.
A radiographer will explain what happens and asks you to sign a consent form. You can ask the radiographer questions if anything is unclear.
You should phone the department where you are due to have the scan for advice, if you are breastfeeding. They will let you know if you need to stop breastfeeding for a length of time after having the radionuclide injection. You may need to store enough expressed milk for a couple of feeds.
At the hospital
First, a technician gives you an injection of a radioactive liquid called a radionuclide. They inject it through a small tube into your bloodstream. It’s a very small amount and doesn’t harm you. The injection might make you feel hot and flushed for a minute or two but this is normal.
You might have a quick test scan immediately after the injection.
You wait for about 4 hours while the radioactive liquid travels through the blood and collects in your bones.
The liquid tends to collect more in areas where the bone is breaking down and repairing itself. These areas of activity (called hot spots) show up on the scan. They look darker than other areas of bone.
Waiting for the scan
Your radiographer asks you to drink plenty of fluids while you wait for your scan. This flushes the radionuclide liquid around your body.
You might be able to walk in the hospital grounds while you are waiting. Or you may need to wait in a separate area with other people having nuclear medicine tests. You might also need to use separate, labelled toilets.
A bone scan looks for abnormal areas in your bones. Before your scan you have an injection of a small amount of radioactive substance. This is not enough to be harmful.
After the injection you can leave the department for a couple of hours. This allows the substance time to get to your bones. The nurse will tell you when to return to the department.
While you are away drink a couple of extra pints of water to flush the injection through your body. Before the scan you will need to empty your bladder.
The camera passes very close to you but doesn’t touch you. It takes a series of pictures.
The radioactive substance helps to show up abnormalities in the bone. These could be a number of different conditions including cancer and fractures.
The scan takes between thirty minutes and an hour. You can leave once it’s finished.
The small amount of radioactivity left in your body disappears within the next 24 hours. So during this time avoid close contact with babies, children and pregnant women.
You usually get the results within a couple of weeks.
Having the bone scan
When you go back to the scanning room your radiographer may ask you to wear a hospital gown. Or you might wear your own clothes. If so, you need to empty your pockets of metal objects such as coins or keys.
You lie down on an x-ray couch and need to keep very still. The camera takes pictures of the bones in your whole body.
You go through the scanner. Let your radiographer know beforehand if you think this will be a problem for you. Tell them if you start to feel claustrophobic. They can reassure you if you feel nervous.
After your bone scan
You should be able to go home soon after the scan.
You should avoid having a bone scan if you are pregnant. Contact your doctor or the department where you are due to have the scan if you are pregnant or think you might be.
You have a small amount of radiation in your body after the scan. The exposure to radiation is similar to the amount that we get from the environment in 2 years. It can increase your risk of developing cancer in the future by an extremely small amount. Talk to your doctor if this worries you.
Your body gets rid of the radionuclide through the urine, usually within 24 hours.
Your radiographer or doctor will explain all the risks and benefits to you before you consent to the scan.
Air travel after a bone scan
Airports have sensitive radiation monitors which might pick up the trace of radiation after your test. So, if you travel by plane within a few days of your scan, take your appointment letter with you. Then you can show the airport staff that the radioactivity is due to a scan.
Getting your results
Waiting for test results can be a very worrying time. You can contact your specialist nurse if you are finding it hard to cope. You can also get in touch with them to ask for information if you need to. It can also help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.
We have more information on tests, treatment and support if you have been diagnosed with cancer.