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Nuclear scan
Nuclear scan


A bone scan is an imaging test that shows areas of increased or decreased bone turnover (metabolism ).

Alternative Names:

Scintigraphy - bone

How the test is performed:

A bone scan involves injecting a radioactive material (radiotracer) into a vein. The substance travels through the bloodstream. As it wears away, it gives off radiation. This radiation is detected by a camera that slowly scans your body. The camera takes pictures of how much radiotracer collects in the bones.

If a bone scan is done to see if you have a bone infection, images will be taken shortly after the radioactive material is injected and again 3 to 4 hours later, when it has collected in the bones. This is called a 3-phase bone scan.

To evaluate metastatic bone disease, images are taken only after the 3 to 4 hour delay.

The scanning part of the test will last about 1 hour and may require you to change positions.

How to prepare for the test:

You must remove jewelry and other metal objects. You may be asked to wear a hospital gown.

How the test will feel:

There is a small amount of pain when the needle is inserted. During the scan there is no pain. You must remain still during the examination, and you will be instructed when to change positions by the technologist.

You may experience some discomfort due to lying still for a prolonged period of time.

Why the test is performed:

A bone scan is used to identify abnormal processes involving the bone such as:

Normal Values:

Normal distribution areas appear uniform and gray throughout all the bones in your body.

What abnormal results mean:

The images should show that the radioactive material has been evenly distributed throughout the body. There should be no areas of increased or decreased distribution. "Hot spots" are areas where there is an increased accumulation of the radioactive material. "Cold spots" are areas that have taken up less of the radioactive material.

What the risks are:

If you are pregnant or nursing, the test may be postponed to prevent exposing the developing baby to radiation.

The amount of radiation injected into your vein is very small, and nearly all radiation is gone from the body within 2-3 days.

Risks related to the bone radiotracer are rare, but may include:

There is a slight risk of infection or bleeding when the needle is inserted into a vein.

Special considerations:

Some abnormalities that may be identified on radionuclide bone scans include:

  • Arthritis and other degenerative diseases of the bones
  • Avascular necrosis
  • Bone infections (osteomyelitis)
  • Bone tumors
  • Fibrous dysplasia
  • Fractures
  • Paget's disease
  • Radiation changes
  • Rickets
  • Tumors that have spread from other parts of the body to the bone (metastatic disease)

It is important to understand that bone scan findings must be compared with other imaging studies, in addition to clinical information. You should always discuss the significance of abnormal findings with your health care provider.

Review Date: 8/10/2008
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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