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What Is a Skeletal Survey?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A skeletal survey is a radiological test that scans the major bones of the human body. This comprehensive x-ray assessment of the skeleton is used to diagnose a number of diseases and conditions. Under certain circumstances, skeletal surveys are also utilized in forensic analysis.

An x-ray evaluation of the skull, chest, spine and long bones is included in most skeletal surveys. Long bones are defined as the bones in which the length exceeds the width. For instance, an x-ray for long bones would consist of the femur, tibia and fibula for a leg and the humeri, radii and ulnas for the arm. The hands and feet also contain long bones, which are called metacarpals and phalanges.

Skeletal surveys usually take about an hour. While x-rays are generally painless, an injured patient might experience some discomfort when moving about to change positions for different x-ray angles. Patients should not wear any jewelry during this test, and women who are pregnant must inform the x-ray technician and other healthcare providers about the pregnancy before testing.

Healthcare professionals may order a skeletal survey to diagnose a range of medical conditions and diseases. The skeletal survey is essential to diagnosing multiple myeloma, which is a cancer that affects plasma cells. Multiple myeloma cancer cells can collect in the bones and form lesions that can be seen on an x-ray. Skeletal surveys are also utilized to examine bone damage due to the trauma of an accident and to diagnose degenerative bone disease and osteomyelitis. Osteomyelitis is an infection in the bone that can be caused by an injury in which an infection spreads to the bone, or after an operation in which a metal plate or rod is inserted into a broken bone.

Skeletal surveys have an important forensic use as well. They are commonly performed when child abuse is suspected. In cases of suspected abuse, x-ray technicians and doctors will look for multiple fractures, especially fractures of different ages. Rib fractures and fractures of the scapula and sternum are also highly suspect in babies and young children.

X-ray imaging is the most efficient form of medical imaging to conduct a skeletal survey. These pictures are produced as the x-ray particles pass through the body and the images are captured on special film. Very dense objects like bone will appear white on an x-ray. The lungs, which contain air, will look black, while muscle will be grey.

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