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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 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.

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 explains what happens and asks you to sign a consent form. You can ask them any questions that you have.

The radiographer will ask whether you have any allergies or asthma.

A bone scan makes some people feel claustrophobic or closed in. Tell the radiographers before your appointment if you think you’re likely to feel this way. They can take extra care to make sure you are comfortable and that you understand what’s going on.

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, but normally you wait 2 to 3 hours while the radioactive tracer travels through the blood and collects in your bones.

The radioactive tracer 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.

Diagram showing 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. If you have problems with passing urine you might get different instructions. 

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.

Take a look at this is a short video about having a bone scan. 

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 and remove any metal objects such as keys, coins, belts, braces and jewellery.

You lie down on a couch and have to keep very still while you go through the scanner. The camera takes pictures of the bones in your whole body.

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 can go home after the scan. It can take about 24 hours for the radionuclide to get out of your system. You need to drink plenty of fluid during this time.

Possible risks

A bone scan is a very safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test. Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having a bone scan outweigh any possible risks.

The possible risks include:

Exposure to radioactivity

You are exposed to a small amount of radiation with the injection of radionuclide. As a precaution, you shouldn’t have long periods of close contact with pregnant women, babies or young children until the day after your scan.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Contact the scanning department if you are due to have a scan and you are pregnant or breast feeding.

You might not be able to have the scan if you are pregnant or if there is a possibility that you might be pregnant.

The staff will tell you if you need to stop breast feeding for a time after having the radionuclide injection. You may need to store enough expressed milk for at least one feed.

Air travel

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 our appointment letter with you. 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. Contact your doctor if you haven’t heard anything after this time.

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

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

Information and help