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A full body bone scan is a nuclear scanning test performed on the entire body, and not just an isolated bone or area of bones. Similar to most kinds of bone imaging, full body bone imaging requires a radiotracer to detect any bone damage, inflammation, or other abnormalities. A doctor might use a full body bone scan to find a diagnosis for unexplained skeletal pain, or other symptoms, such as cancer in other parts of the body, might be the reason for the scan. Certain patients, like pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding, shouldn’t have bone imaging. Some rare side effects, like extreme allergic reactions to the radiotracer, exist, but overall bone imaging presents no more risk than an X-ray.
Also called bone scintigraphy, bone imaging requires the injection of a radiotracer, which is a radioactive material, into the veins. Once it travels to the bones and organs, the radiotracer begins to settle and give off radiation. During a full body bone scan, a camera scans the entire body and collects images of the radiotracer that settles in the bones. Sometimes, patients must change positions for the camera to get the most thorough and accurate images. A full body bone scan typically lasts about an hour, but it could last longer.
Bone imaging processes can vary, depending on their purpose. For example, imaging to detect bone inflammation might require two sets of scans, several hours apart. Patients might also need to make extra preparations, such as drinking plenty of water beforehand to prevent the radioactive material from showing up in their bladders.
The phrase “full body bone scan” my conjure images of bone cancer or cancer that’s spread to the bones from other parts of the body. While bone imaging can detect these and other serious health issues, it also is used to detect normal and often treatable or manageable problems like arthritis and bone fractures that are difficult for X-rays to capture. Bone imaging also can detect rickets and infections like osteomyelitis, and is often used in relation to conditions like Paget’s disease, a bone disorder.
Doctors advise their patients about the necessary preparations and risks associated with a full body bone scan. Generally, pregnant and nursing women should avoid bone imaging. Patients shouldn’t take medications with bismuth in them for several days before the procedure, and while bone imaging itself usually is painless, the needle injection could sting and lying still for long periods of time could become uncomfortable. It’s possible for injection sites to become infected, though this is uncommon if the site is kept clean. Rarely, patients will have extreme allergic reactions to the radioactive material, develop rashes, or experience swelling of the skin, organs, or other body parts.