A bone scan is a test that detects areas of increased or decreased bone activity. These may indicate bone injury or disease. Radioactive isotopes and tracer chemicals are used to highlight problem areas.
The test is done to detect an abnormal process involving your bone, including the following:
Complications are rare, but no procedure is completely risk free. If you are planning to have a bone scan, your doctor will review a list of possible complications, which may include:
Some people worry about the use of radioactive material in a bone scan. The amount of radioactivity is small, though larger than you would receive from common x-ray procedures, like a chest x-ray or dental x-ray. The radioactive material is eliminated from the body within 2-3 days.
Be sure to discuss these risks with your doctor before the test.
Tell your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. You may need to discard breast milk for several days after a bone scan.
Tell your doctor if you have recently had anything that contains barium, such as contrast dye or bismuth.
Three hours before the scan, you will receive an injection of radioactive tracer chemicals. You should drink plenty of fluids between the time of the injection and the scan. You will also be asked to empty your bladder before the scan.
You will lie on your back on an imaging table. A camera above and below the table will slowly scan you. You may be asked to move into various positions as the scan is done. It is important to lie still when not told to move. The camera will be able to detect small amounts of radioactivity in the injected material. This will allow the doctor to see areas where there may be bone injury or disease.
The injection site will be checked for redness and swelling.
You will be in the scanner for 20-60 minutes. Sometimes another scan is done after 24 hours.
No. The test is painless, except for the mild discomfort of the injection.
If your bone tissue is healthy, your scan will show that the chemical has spread evenly to all of your bones. If there is an area of disease, darker or lighter areas (hot or cold spots) will be seen on the scan. These will show the areas with abnormally active bone breakdown or repair.
Call your doctor if you have questions about the test, your condition, or your test results.
In case of an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
Holmes EB. Ionizing radiation exposure with medical imaging. Medscape Drugs Disease & Procedures website. Available at: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1464228-overview. Updated April 23, 2015. Accessed March 14, 2018.
Snderlin BR, Raspa R. Common stress fractures. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2003/1015/p1527.html. Accessed March 14, 2018.
Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board James P. Cornell, MD Last Updated: 3/15/2013