Decorative image

Bone scan

Find out how you have a bone scan to check whether breast cancer has spread to the bone and what happens afterwards.

A bone scan shows up changes or abnormalities in the bones. It is also called:

  • a radionuclide scan
  • bone scintigraphy
  • nuclear medicine bone scan

A bone scan can look at a particular joint or bone. In cancer it is more usual to scan the whole body.

A large camera (called a gamma camera) scans you and picks up radioactivity. 

Photograph of a man having a bone scan

You have the scan in either the medical physics, nuclear medicine or x-ray department at the hospital. The scan can take between 30 to 60 minutes, but you'll be at the hospital for several hours. 

If there are changes on the scan they may be called hot spots. These are not always cancer. Bone changes can happen for other reasons like arthritis. You might need to have a CT scan to know exactly where these abnormal areas are. 

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.

Phone the department where you are having the scan if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. You might have to stop breastfeeding for a short period of time after having the scan. So you might want to store enough expressed milk for 1 or 2 feeds beforehand. The staff at the department will advise you.

You have to arrive at the hospital about 4 hours before your scan. Your appointment letter will tell you the exact time.

Tell the department beforehand if you have difficulties passing urine, need to pass urine urgently, or have prostate related problems. 

What happens

First, a technician gives you an injection of a radioactive liquid called a radionucleotide.

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. It tends to collect more in areas where the bone is breaking down and repairing itself. These areas of activity or ‘hot-spots’ show up on the scan.

They look darker than other areas of bone.

Diagram showing bone scan hot spots

Waiting for the scan

Your radiographer will ask you to drink plenty of fluids while you wait for your scan. This flushes the radionucleotide round your system well.

You might be able to walk in the hospital grounds while you are waiting. Or you might need to wait in a separate area with other people having nuclear medicine tests. You might need to use specific labelled toilets.

The radiographer will ask you to pass urine just before your scan. This gets rid of any radionucleotide in your bladder, so it doesn’t interfere with your scan.

Having the bone scan

When you go back to the scanning room your radiographer might ask you to wear a hospital gown. Or you might wear your own clothes but 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 still. The camera then takes pictures of the bones in your whole body (skeleton). Your body goes 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 will reassure you if you feel nervous.

The scan can take up to an hour.

After your bone scan

You should be able to go home soon after the scan. You need to drink plenty for the rest of the day to help flush the radioactive tracer out of your body. Your body gets rid of it through the urine, usually within 24 hours.

A very small amount of radioactive tracer is left in your body for a short time after your scan. So for the rest of the day keep any time you spend within arm's length of pregnant women, babies or young children as short as possible. 

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks at a follow up appointment. 

Waiting for test results can be a very worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse who you can contact for information if you need to. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

You can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 for information and support. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

Possible risks

A bone scan is a safe test for most people but like all medical tests there are possible risks. Your doctor and radiographer make sure the benefits of having the test outweigh these risks.

Bruising and swelling

You might get a small bruise around the area where they put the needle in.

There's is a risk that the radioactive tracer will leak outside the vein. This can cause swelling and pain in your arm but it's rare and gets better quickly. 

Pregnancy

Contact the department if you are due to have a bone scan and you are pregnant or breastfeeding. The staff will tell you if you need to stop breastfeeding for a time after having the radioactive tracer. 

You might not be able to have a bone scan if there is a possibility that you might be pregnant. This is because the radioactive tracer could affect the developing baby.

Radiation

Exposure to radiation during a bone scan can slightly increase your risk of developing cancer in the future. Talk to your doctor or radiographer if this worries you.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.