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.

What is a bone scan?

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.

Bone scan preparation

A few steps that may help patients better prepare for a bone scan are listed below.

Discuss medications with the care team: Inform the care team about any current medications, including over-the-counter drugs and supplements.

Avoid certain drugs: Don’t use medications with barium or bismuth (this includes Pepto-Bismol®) in advance of the test, unless the care team approves. These medications may alter the results of the test.

Share pregnancy, breastfeeding details: Let the care team know if the patient may be pregnant, is breastfeeding or has drug allergies. If the patient is breastfeeding, she may be able to undergo a bone scan, but she'll likely be instructed to pump any breast milk and then dispose of it for up to two days after the exam.

Ask about financial details: Ask in advance how much a bone scan costs. If the patient has health insurance, be sure to share that information.

What to expect from a bone scan procedure

A bone scan is usually done in an outpatient imaging center or a hospital’s nuclear medicine or radiology department. He or she will be asked to remove any jewelry or other metal objects before the procedure.

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

The patient will need to wait one to four hours for the radioactive material to travel through his or her body, including to the bones.

A special camera then takes pictures to show the radioactive material in the bones. The patient will need to lie still unless the doctor asks him or her to change positions.

What does cancer look like on a bone scan?

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.

How long does a bone scan take?

The scan part of the process takes about one hour. While waiting to complete the bone scan and then afterward, the patient 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 the bones. This may help guide the patient's cancer treatment decisions.

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

If the injection site on the patient's arm causes pain, redness or swelling, he or she should call the care team right away or seek urgent medical care.

Bone scan results

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

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

Depending on the bone scan results, the care team may suggest additional tests, potentially including:

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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