Bone scan and cancer diagnosis

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A bone scan shows changes in your bones. Learn how this scan is done, what to expect during a bone scan and when you will get your results.

Key points

  • A bone scan takes a series of pictures of the skeleton to show active cells, which could be a sign of a tumour.
  • You will receive a safe, radioactive medicine before the scan that will help the health-care team see any active areas in your bones.
  • You will need to lie very still during the scan, which may take between 20 to 45 minutes.
  • Your doctor will discuss the results of the scan with you.

What is a bone scan?

A bone scan is a set of pictures of your skeleton (bones). The scan is usually done to show changes in the bone. A bone scan can find areas in your bone where cells are more active than usual, such as in a tumour. These areas might not show up on a regular X-ray.

Bone scanbone scan showing active cancer cells in the shinbone
This bone scan shows an area in the leg with active cells, which could be a sign of a tumour.

Why do I need a bone scan?

In a bone scan, a radiologist will be able to see areas in your bone where there are lots of active cells, which could be a sign of a tumour. They will also be able to see whether cancer from another part of your body has spread (metastasized) to your bones.

How is a bone scan done?

An intravenous (IV) will first be put in your vein. Through the IV, you will receive a radioactive medicine that will travel to your bones. This medicine is safe. It will take two to three hours for your bones to absorb the medicine. Drinking lots of water will help your bones absorb the medicine more quickly.

After the medicine is absorbed, you will be asked to lie on a special X-ray table. This is where the bone scan will happen. You will need to lie very still. If you are worried about lying still during the scan, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can give you suggestions to help you through it or they may be able to give you some medicine that will help you relax. Bone scans may be done on part of your body or your whole body. They take between 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the area of the body being scanned.

A gamma camera will be placed very close to your body. This camera will record the gamma rays the radioactive medicine gives off. Gamma rays are like flashes of light, but our eyes cannot see them. The gamma camera makes an image or movie of your bones in action. Very simply, it will create a living picture of your skeleton. Areas in your bones where the cells are active will look dark in the pictures. Areas where the cells are not active will look lighter.

Bone scan results

Your doctor will let you know how long you will need to wait for the results of the bone scan.

The radiologist will look at the pictures from the bone scan and will talk to your doctor. Your doctor will then tell you and your family what the pictures showed.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019