Bone Scan

Bone Scan

What is it?

A bone scan is a test used to show trouble spots on the spine. A radioactive chemical, sometimes called a “tracer”, is injected into the bloodstream. The chemical quickly attaches itself to areas of the skeleton that are busy making new bone. Several hours after the injection, pictures are taken of the skeleton.

Why is it done?

A bone scan is very useful when it is unclear exactly where the problem is in the skeleton. It offers the ability to take a picture of the entire skeleton and pinpoint any problem areas. Concentrations of the chemical “tracer” appear as dark spots on the film.

In an adult, dark spots usually indicate that there is a problem with the skeleton. The increased bone-making activity that the dark spots represent is the skeleton’s response to the problem. For example, if there is a bone fracture, bone cells will very quickly begin to make new bone to try to repair it. That activity will appear as a dark spot on a bone scan. If a dark spot is located on the bone scan, the doctor may order additional tests to get more specific information about your condition.

A bone scan can show problems such as bone tumors, infection, and fractures of the spine . It can also be used to determine bone density and the bone-thinning condition of osteoporosis .

How is it done?

An intravenous (IV) line is started in your hand or arm. The chemical tracer is then injected into your bloodstream through the IV. There is a waiting period of two to three hours, while the chemical attaches itself to any areas of bone that are undergoing rapid changes. You may be free to leave during this waiting period and come back when it is time to perform the bone scan.

When it is time to perform the bone scan, you will then be asked to lie or sit underneath a large “camera” that takes pictures of your skeleton. Since the chemical tracer is radioactive, it sends out radiation that this special camera is able to capture. The camera is similar to a “Geiger counter” in that it uses film to capture the radioactivity. The procedure takes 30-90 minutes.

What are the limitations?

The bone scan does not show details of the bones or soft tissue. It simply shows how much the bone around a specific area is reacting to the problem.

What are the risks?

There is always the risk of an allergic reaction to anything injected into the bloodstream. An allergic reaction to the chemical tracer used in a bone scan is uncommon. The chemical is radioactive, but it disappears from the body very rapidly, usually within hours.

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A Patient’s Guide to Bone Scans

What it is: A bone scan can be used to locate a problem area of the spine. It is a test where a radioactive chemical is injected into the bloodstream and pictures are taken a short time later. The chemical very quickly attaches itself to areas of the skeleton that are busy making new bone. In an adult, this usually means there is a problem in the area and the increased bone making activity is a response by the skeleton to a problem in the area.

For example, if there is a fracture of the bone, the bone cells will very quickly begin to make new bone to try to repair the fracture. The injected chemical begins to concentrate in this area several hours after the injection. A special camera takes pictures of the area of the skeleton where the problem is. Problem areas will show up as dark areas on the film, because more of the chemical has concentrated in that area. Since the chemical tracer is radioactive, it sends out radiation that can be captured by a special camera. The camera is similar to a “Geiger counter” in that it uses film to capture the radioactivity. The radioactivity shows up as a hotspot on the film.

What the test shows: A bone scan is very useful when it is unclear exactly where the problem is in the skeleton. It offers the ability to take a picture of the entire skeleton and light up the area where the problem seems to be coming from. This gives the doctor the advantage of pinpointing exactly where to look next. After locating the problem areas, other tests will be done to show more aspects of those specific spots. The bone scan can show problem areas such as bone tumors, infection, and fractures of the spine. A bone scan can also be used to determine bone density and the bone-thinning condition of osteoporosis.

What the test does not show: The bone scan does not show the details of the bones or soft tissue. It only shows how much the bone around a specific area is reacting to the problem.

How the test is done: The bone scan works by injecting a radioactive chemical, sometimes called a “tracer”, into the bloodstream through an intravenous line (IV). The chemical will attach itself to any areas of bone that are undergoing rapid changes. The test requires that an IV be started in your hand or arm. The chemical is then injected and you wait for several hours. Usually you are free to leave and come back in two to three hours. You will then be asked to lie or sit underneath a large “camera” that will take pictures of the skeleton. This may take 30 – 90 minutes.

What risks the test has: The test uses a dye that must be injected. There is always the risk of an allergic reaction to anything injected into the bloodstream. In this case, an allergic reaction is uncommon. The dye that is injected is a radioactive substance, however, it disappears from the body very rapidly (within hours).

What the test costs: A bone scan of the spine usually has two costs associated with it. The first cost is the fee for actually doing the test. This is called the “technical fee”. The second cost is the fee of having a specialist, such as a radiologist, read and interpret the test. This is called the “professional fee”. You may get two bills for this test: one from the hospital or clinic where you had the bone scan done, and one from the specialist who read the test.