Bone scan

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science.

This page was updated on June 8, 2022.

A bone scan is used to diagnose diseases of the bone and to determine their severity. For cancer, it helps show whether the disease has started in the bones or spread to them. Bone scans also may help measure progress with treatments for bone cancer.

A bone scan is a type of test called a nuclear medicine test. Another name for a bone scan is scintigraphy.

Bone scans help to identify cancer earlier than it may be found with a regular X-ray.

Certain types of cancer are known to spread to the bones, including breast cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer and prostate cancer.

How to prepare for a bone scan

There are a few steps to help you better prepare for a bone scan:

  • Inform your care team of any medication you take, including over-the-counter drugs and supplements.
  • Don’t use medications with barium or bismuth (this includes Pepto-Bismol®) in advance of the test, unless your doctor approves. These medications may alter the results of the test.
  • Let your care team know if you may be pregnant or are breastfeeding, or if you have drug allergies. If you’re breastfeeding, you may be able to undergo a bone scan, but you’ll likely be instructed to pump any breast milk and then dispose of it for up to two days after the exam.
  • Ask in advance how much a bone scan costs. If you have health insurance, be sure to ask your provider.

What to expect from a bone scan

A bone scan is usually done in an outpatient imaging center or a hospital’s nuclear medicine or radiology department. If you wear any jewelry or other metal objects to the appointment, you’ll be asked to remove them.

During a bone scan, a radiologist injects a small amount of radioactive material into one of your veins. This material is also called a tracer. You may feel a little pain at this point, although the scan itself isn’t painful.

You will need to wait one to four hours for the radioactive material to travel through your body, including to your bones.

A special camera then takes pictures to show the radioactive material in the bones. You will need to lie still unless your doctor asks you to change positions.

On the scan, healthy bone appears lighter. Areas with too little or too much absorption of the radioactive material may indicate bone damage. This may be bone cancer or bone metastasis.

The scan part of the process takes about one hour. While waiting to complete your bone scan and then afterward, you may be instructed to drink water to keep the radioactive material from collecting in the bladder.

Benefits and risks of a bone scan

The benefit of a bone scan is to find out whether cancer is in your bones. This may help guide your cancer treatment decisions.

After a bone scan, you’re safe to be around others. The amount of radiation is similar to or less than a regular X-ray. You may also resume normal activities such as driving.

If the injection site on your arm causes pain, redness or swelling, call your doctor right away or seek urgent medical care.

Reviewing the results of a bone scan

A normal bone scan result shows the radioactive material spread evenly throughout your bones. An abnormal bone scan result shows too much or too little radioactive material in certain areas.

After physicians have reviewed the images, ask your care team any questions you have about the results of the bone scan.

Depending on the bone scan results, your doctor may suggest additional tests. Other tests you may need include:

These tests may help distinguish cancer from other bone diseases that look similar on a bone scan.

The test results may also help guide a cancer treatment plan in the future.

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