What Is a Bone Scan?


If you are experiencing unexplained bone pain or inflammation your doctor may order a nuclear test known as a bone scan. The bone scan procedure can reveal trauma to the bones that other tests cannot identify. Broken bones and a time frame of when the trauma occurred are also possible with a bone scan. It can even pick-up on physical changes in the bones such as, softening or thickening.


  • Tracers are what makes the bone scan procedure possible. The tracers are very small pieces of nuclear material referred to as "radionuclides". The radionuclides are injected into a vein (usually in the arm), where it travels through the blood stream and enters the bones, organs and tissues of the body. According to the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara it usually takes anywhere from two to four hours for the bones to completely absorb the tracers.

The Procedure

  • After the radionuclides are absorbed the bone scan procedure can begin. MayoClinic explains that the patient lies down on a table during the bone scan procedure. An instrument known as a "gamma camera", located on a flexible metal arm, scans the entire body in order to determine the pattern of radionuclide absorption. An entire bone scan procedure lasts for approximately 60 minutes and is completely painless.

What can it Detect?

  • A bone scan can detect abnormalities in the bones. Health.com reports that these abnormalities are often referred to as "hot-spots", which are areas of bone that collect radionuclide's in abundance. Hot-spots can be indicative of a number of disorders; namely arthritis and fractures. But, hot-spots can also signify more serious conditions such as, bone tumors and bone infections.

What are the Risks?

  • The bone scan procedure subjects a patient to only minor amounts of radiation, and adverse reactions are a very rare occurrence. In fact, the Health Physics Society (HPS) explains that the side effects of the radioactive injection are usually minor and consist of chills, rash and itching. Nausea and vomiting may also be experienced by the patient, along with hypo-tension and dizziness. Women who are pregnant or nursing are advised to inform their physician prior to any nuclear procedure.


  • A bone scan can be quite effective in detecting problems in the bones but the procedure does have its limitations. For instance, All About Back and Neck Pain points out that a bone scan cannot determine abnormalities in soft tissue. Therefore, a bone scan must be used in combination with a medical exam and a complete medical history evaluation before a diagnosis can be confirmed. Sometimes the addition of further testing may be necessary, including a biopsy.

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