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Bone scan

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 it picks up radioactivity. 

photograph of a man having a bone scan.png

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 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.

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.

What happens

At the hospital

When you arrive at the department the radiographer explains what will happen and asks you to sign a consent form. You can ask them questions if anything is unclear.

They give you an injection of a radioactive liquid called a radionuclide or radioactive tracer. They inject it through a small tube (cannula) in a vein in your arm or back of your hand. It’s a small amount of radiation. 

You might have a test scan immediately after the injection.

You wait for about 3 hours while the radioactive tracer 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.

bone scan hot spots

Waiting for the scan

Your radiographer asks you to drink plenty while you wait for your scan. This flushes the radioactive tracer around your body.

You might be able to have a 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. Because of the small amount of radiation from the radioactive tracer you might need to use separate labelled toilets.

Having the bone scan

You usually wear your own clothes for the scan but some hospitals may ask you to change into a hospital gown. Your radiographer will ask you to empty your pockets of metal objects such as keys or coins.

You lie down on a couch and have 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 closed in or claustrophobic. They can help to reassure you.

The scan can take between 30 minutes 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.

You should avoid spending long periods of time in close contact with young children and pregnant women for the rest of the day. This is so you don’t expose them to the radiation. Your radiographer will tell you more about this. 

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. 

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.

Allergic reaction

Rarely, people have an allergic reaction to the radioactive tracer. This most often starts with weakness, sweating and difficulty breathing. Tell your radiographer immediately if you feel unwell. 

Air travel after a bone scan

Airports have sensitive radiation monitors which might pick up the trace of radiation after your test. Take your appointment letter with you if you are travelling by plane within a few days of your scan. Then you can show the airport staff that the radioactivity is due to a scan. 

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks.

Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them. Contact them if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

You might have the contact details for a specialist nurse. You can contact them for information and support if you need to. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel. 

For information and support, you can also call the Cancer Research UK nurses on a freephone number 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

More information

We have more information on tests, treatment and support if you have been diagnosed with cancer.

Last reviewed: 
17 Sep 2018
  • The EANM practice guidelines for bone scintigraphy
    T Van den Wyngaert and others
    European Journal of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, 2016. Volume 43, Pages 1723 - 1738

  • Clinical Guideline for Bone Scintigraphy
    C Fowler
    British Nuclear Medicine Society Professional Standards Committee, 2014

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015 

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