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What It Is

Metastasis is the spread of cancer to other parts of your body. In this type, the cancer cells travel to your bones through blood or other fluids.

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Risk Factors

Any type of cancer can raise your chances of bone metastasis. Doctors can't predict if diseased cells will spread, but certain cancers are more likely to reach your bones, including:

  • Breast
  • Lung
  • Thyroid
  • Prostate
  • Kidney 

The same goes for large tumors in your lymph nodes.

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Where They Form

They can grow in any bone, but they tend to be close to the center of the body. The most common place is the spine, but they're also found in the:

  • Thigh bone
  • Upper arm bone
  • Ribs
  • Hips
  • Skull
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Bone pain is often the first sign. It can come and go, but it may build up over time. The discomfort is usually worse at night.

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If It's in Your Spine

A growing cancer in the spine can press on your spinal cord. This can damage the nerves and cause muscle weakness, numbness, and trouble going to the bathroom. If not treated right away, it can leave you paralyzed. Treatments include steroid injections, radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. You may need physical therapy to tone your muscles again.

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How It Damages Your Bones

Metastasis weakens them, especially those in your spine and the long ones in your arms and legs. With time, even everyday activities like coughing or sitting down in a chair can cause breaks. The pain is often sudden and sharp.

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Images Your Doctor May Need

Your doctor might order tests to take images of the inside of your body, even if you don't have symptoms. With X-rays, they can find cancerous growths and tell if a bone is broken. A bone scan often shows metastases earlier than an X-ray and can check your whole body at once. CT, MRI, and PET scans can also tell if your cancer spread.

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Calcium Levels Are Important

When cancer spreads to your bones, it often releases calcium into your blood. Too much of this mineral can cause nausea, constipation, dehydration, and even a coma.

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Treating the Primary Cancer

Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy target the main cancer. Taken by mouth or injection, they attack any cancer cells in the body. These treatments, called systemic because they affect the whole body, can cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue, hair loss, and a higher chance of infection.

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Bisphosphonates Can Help

This class of drugs treats weak bones. Bisphosphonates can lower high calcium levels, help with pain, and cut your chances of broken bones. Side effects of these meds include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, anemia, and bone or joint pain. A serious but rare side effect is jawbone death, where part of the bone in your jaw dies. Another medicine that may help is denosumab.

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woman receiving radiation
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Bone Help

Local treatments focus on just the bone or bones where the cancer spread. They work to destroy the tumor or slow down the growth of cancer cells.

  • External beam radiation uses high-powered energy rays to hit the diseased cells. It's similar to an X-ray, but much stronger.
  • Ablation is another option that attacks tumors with cold, heat, electric currents, or alcohol.
  • Focused ultrasound kills nerve endings in the bone around the tumor.
  • Radioactive medications can target the cancer.
  • Doctors can also inject bone cement to help stabilize the area.
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In the operating room, your doctor can repair broken bones or put in rods, screws, pins, or plates to keep a weak bone from breaking. Prevention is the best approach, as breaks caused by cancer often don't heal well.

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Pain Management

In many cases, treatments for bone metastasis will also help relieve bone pain. But if the discomfort doesn't go away, your doctor might suggest over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. If they don't work, they might prescribe stronger ones like opiates.

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After Treatment

Bone metastases aren't usually curable, but treatments can shrink them and relieve symptoms. Talk to your doctor about any new symptoms or side effects you've noticed, and ask them about other treatments that might work for you.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 06/20/2021 Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on June 20, 2021


1)    Alain Pol / ISM
2)    Romilly Lockyer / The Image Bank
3)    Zephyr / Photo Researchers, Inc.
5)    Living Art Enterprises / Photo Researchers, Inc.
6)    Medscape Reference
7)    Ian Hooten / Science Photo Library
8)    fStop Images / the Agency Collection
9)    Véronique Burger / Photo Researchers, Inc
10)   Professor Pietro M. Motta / Photo Researchers, Inc.
11)   Martin Dohrn / Photo Researchers, Inc.
12)   Matthew Septimus / Photonica
13)   Tom Grill / JGI / Blend Images
14)   altrendo images


American Cancer Society: "What Is Bone Metastasis?" "Bone Metastasis:
What Are the Risk Factors for Bone Metastases?" "Bone Metastasis: How
Are Bone Metastases Diagnosed?" "Bone Metastasis: Systemic
Treatments," "Bone Metastasis: Local Treatments," "Bone Metastasis:
Pain Medications for Bone Metastases," "Bone Metastasis: What
Happens After Treatment of Bone Metastases?"
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Metastatic Bone Disease."
National Cancer Institute: "Metastatic Cancer," "Surgery Helps Relieve
Spinal Cord Compression Caused by Metastatic Cancer," "Radiation
Therapy for Cancer."
Medline Plus: "Spinal Tumor."
American Academy of Family Physicians: "Bisphosphonates: Safety and
Efficacy in the Treatment and Prevention of Osteoporosis."
PubMed Health: "Osteoporosis."
National Osteoporosis Foundation: "Concerns About Bisphosphonates."

Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on June 20, 2021

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.