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.
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.
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. The injection might make you feel hot and flushed for a minute or two but this is normal.
You might have a 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 while you wait for your scan. This flushes the radionuclide liquid 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 radionuclide injection you might 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
You usually wear your own clothes for the scan. Your radiographer might ask you to empty your pockets of metal objects such as keys or coins.
You lie down on an x-ray 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 radionuclide 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.
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.
You might get a small bruise around the area where they put the needle in.
Having a bone scan means you are exposed to a small amount of radiation. So you should avoid having a bone scan if you are pregnant.
Exposure to radiation from having a bone scan can increase your risk of developing cancer in the future by an extremely small amount. Your doctor or radiographer can talk to you about this.
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 worrying time. You can contact your specialist nurse if you’re finding it hard to cope. 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.