What Is a Bone Scan? - Definition, Uses & Side Effects

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

A bone scan is an imaging procedure used to look for abnormalities in the bones. Though radioactive material is used, the scan does not have many common side effects. Read this lesson to learn more about bone scans.

Bone Scans

What is a bone scan? It might sound like a medieval torture device, but it's not that bad. It's actually a painless imaging procedure used to monitor bone health. Bone scans are capable of finding signs of injury or infection long before they would appear on an X-ray, and they can be used to monitor how well bones are rebuilding (a process called bone metabolism).

Specifically, bone scans are used to:

  • find bone cancers
  • detect if other forms of cancer have spread to the bones
  • diagnose unexplained pain
  • diagnose broken bones
  • detect damage caused by infections
  • evaluate ongoing metabolic disorders

How a Bone Scan Works

The process is relatively straightforward. First, a radioactive tracer is injected into the vein of the arm. Once the tracer is in the blood, it will circulate throughout the body and eventually be absorbed by the bones. After about 2-5 hours, a specialized camera that detects radiation is used to scan the entire body. The scan itself takes about an hour. During and after the scan, the patient will be encouraged to drink extra water to prevent the radioactive tracer from accumulating in the kidney or bladder. The over-the-counter drug Peptol-Bismol contains bismuth and can interfere with a bone scan, so it should be avoided during the 24-hour period leading up to a scan.

Places where the tracer does not absorb into the bone show up dark on the scan. These spots may be locations where the bone is not getting enough blood, which can cause the bone to die. Areas that have undergone recent repair will appear as bright spots on the scan because new bone tissue absorbs more tracer. These spots may indicate arthritis, tumors, fractures, or infections.

Results of a bone scan look like this.
bone scan image

Side Effects of a Bone Scan

There usually aren't any side effects from a bone scan. The scan itself is painless though the initial injection may be uncomfortable. There is a small chance the injection site will become infected or cause bleeding, but this is uncommon.

Very few people have allergic reactions to the radioactive tracer, but if they do, it is characterized by a rash or swelling.

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