What Are Bone Scans for Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on September 07, 2022
3 min read

A bone scan is a nuclear imaging test that can help tell you if you have certain types of bone disease. You may get this kind of scan to see if cancer has spread to your bones or to view how well treatment has worked for cancer in your bones.

You don’t need to change your activity or diet before a bone scan. But if you’re on any medications or have had an X-ray test recently, tell your doctor right away. Drugs with bismuth (Kaopectate, Kola-Pectin DS, Pepto-Bismol) or X-rays with barium can affect bone scan results.

Before your test, your doctor will ask you to take off all jewelry and other metal objects that you have. They might also have you wear a hospital gown.

While the test itself will only take about 30 to 60 minutes, your entire hospital visit will most likely take many hours.

This exam uses a little amount of tracer, which is a radioactive substance. A technician will put it into one of the veins in your arm or the back of your hand. It will collect in different areas of your body. The places in your body where cells are being repaired will take up the most tracer.

In bone scans for cancer, your doctor usually looks at your entire body for any bone damage. They’ll use a gamma camera, which is a large camera, to check your body for the radioactivity from the tracer. You’ll lie on a table while it moves closely over your body. This can take up to an hour. Let your doctor know if you feel too closed in during the test. They’ll help you feel more comfortable during your exam.

In some situations, your doctor may want you to have a three-phase scan. This means you’ll have multiple images taken of your bones. The first set will happen at the same time as you get the tracer, the second will be right after the injection, and the last will happen 3 to 5 hours after that.

After your exam, your doctor will tell you to drink a lot of water to flush the tracer out of your body. Since tracer is radioactive, you may need to use separate toilets at the doctors’ office, as well as at home, especially if you have kids.

If your doctor sees changes on your bone scan, they’ll show up as “hot spots” which are darker areas or “cold spots” which are lighter. Bone scans show changes in your bones, but they don’t tell you if it’s because of cancer or not. You may have to have other tests to figure out what the changes mean. These extra tests will tell you if the spots are cancerous or related to another problem, like arthritis.

Bone scans usually don’t have any side effects, and you won’t need any follow-up care. The radioactivity should completely leave your body after 2 days.

These tests are usually safe. But like anything, there are some risks. Your doctor will make sure that the benefits of a bone scan outweigh the possible risks.

Pregnancy. If you’re pregnant or think you may be pregnant, tell your doctor before you have a bone scan. You may not be able to get a bone scan because the radioactive tracer could harm your pregnancy.

If you breastfeed, your doctor might tell you that you need to stop for some time after you had the radioactive tracer.

Bruises or inflammation. You could get a minor bruise in the area where you get your injection. If the radioactive tracer leaks outside of your vein, the area could swell up and hurt. But this is rare and will heal quickly.

Radiation. The very small amount of radiation that you get from this test could make your risk of cancer in the future go up slightly. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about this.