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What is a Bone Scan?

By Adam Hill
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A bone scan is a type of test procedure that is done in order to measure the activity of bone cells. It is done by injecting a slightly radioactive material, called a tracer, into a vein in the patient’s arm. Over the course of a few hours, about half of the tracer is picked up by bone cells, while the other half is filtered out of the body by the kidneys. The tracer is attracted to areas of bone that are highly active, and this can be viewed with a special camera that detects the radiation given off by the tracer. A bone scan is often used to diagnose bone problems such as stress fractures, cancerous lesions, or other conditions that cannot be seen clearly in a traditional X-ray.

The activity and function of cells in the bones is what a bone scan is meant to read. Many people think of bones as static, dry structures that provide support to the body, and do little else. In reality, bones are alive and active, metabolizing nutrients and repairing problems like any other tissue in the body. Certain problems can cause changes in bone metabolism. These changes can be observed through a bone scan, and a doctor can use the results to diagnose problems and suggest treatments.

The camera that detects the radiation from the injected tracer sees areas that absorb little or no tracer as dark spots. These are normal in certain places, but an abnormal dark spot may indicate a lack of blood supply to that area, or the presence of certain types of cancer. In areas where the bone is rapidly growing or being repaired, more tracer will be absorbed and the scan will show a light-colored area or “hot spot.” While a hot spot can also be normal, it may indicate problems such as arthritis, an infection, or the presence of a tumor.

The amount of radiation absorbed by the body during a bone scan is usually small enough to be perfectly safe. However, a patient who is or might be pregnant should consult with a physician before receiving an injection of a radioactive tracer. If there is a legitimate medical justification for it, the bone scan will not normally be delayed. In rare cases, a patient may suffer an allergic reaction to the tracer, but a bone scan ordinarily poses no greater risk than a conventional X-ray.

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Discussion Comments
By indemnifyme — On Sep 03, 2011

@strawCake - It seems like a bone scan might be safer than a traditional x-ray for the person administering it though. X-ray technicians are exposed to some radioactivity when they do x-rays.

But in the case of bones scans, it seems like only the patient is exposed because it is injected. So while the patient is exposed to radioactivity, the technician probably isn't. Still, I don't think this would be a good reason to decide on a bone scan versus a regular x-ray!

By strawCake — On Sep 02, 2011

I think it's kind of crazy that this is even safe! Radioactive substances are harmful and cancer causing to humans, but radioactivity is also used a lot in medical imaging.

I suppose doctors probably order this kind of test only when it's really necessary though. And small amounts of radioactive substances aren't harmful. I would feel worried for someone that had to have a bunch of bone scans done though!

By PinkLady4 — On Sep 01, 2011

That's fascinating that doctors can use some radiation in a tracer and a camera to help diagnose cancer, arthritis or a stress fracture.

It's interesting how this radiation tracer can be attracted to an area of the body and indicate by displaying a color, what is going on in the body. By looking at the colored area, doctors can tell whether the bone is actively repairing itself. Also, the doctor can tell by looking through the camera if the bone area is dying.

And this method is considered safe. Amazing!

By BoniJ — On Sep 01, 2011

It certainly is true that our bones are not just to hold us up. After having a couple of bone density tests, I learned that bones are constantly breaking down old cells and making new ones.

This process is very active in young people, but as you become older the system slows and if your bones become less and less dense and brittle, you have osteoporosis and are prone to fractures and compression fractures.

The test is done by a special kind of X-ray and the results are shown on a scale as compared to the density of a young woman. Sometimes the score of a patient can actually improve - that's good news!

By matthewc23 — On Sep 01, 2011

I have to wonder with the tracer how it can be determined whether or not someone is allergic. Although the article does state that it is very rare and is practically harmless I have to wonder if there really are people out there that would be allergic to the dye and if so how this can be determined.

By TreeMan — On Aug 31, 2011

I have had a normal bone scan, not a bone cancer scan, and it pointed out several stress fractures I had. I thought it was really neat how they could do something like injecting a liquid into someone’s skin in order to look for problems. In my case I had a pain in my hand and the doctor could not figure out what the problem was. After injecting the liquid they were able to see that I had a stress fracture in my hand. Although not much could be done about it I at least knew what the problem was and could do what I could to take care of it.

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