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Nuclear Medicine Patient Education

Bone Scan

What is it?

A bone scan, also called bone scintigraphy, provides your doctor with a functional image of your bones. That means the image shows how the cells are performing—whether normally or abnormally, and to what degree. This is how it works:

  1. The technologist injects a radiotracer into a vein.
    A radiotracer is a compound made of a radioactive isotope and a pharmaceutical agent. In the radiotracer used for a bone scan, the pharmaceutical part acts like calcium in your body—it is attracted to your bones.
  2. The bones absorb the radiotracer they way they absorb calcium.
  3. The radioactive isotope releases energy, and a special camera creates an image from it.
  4. The image shows any area where too much or too little of the radiotracer has been absorbed, indicating irregular function of the cells.
What is it for?

A bone scan can be used to detect arthritis, infection (cellulitis or osteomyelitis), tumors, fractures that are difficult to see on a standard x-ray, and evidence of prior trauma such as an old sports injuries. A bone scan may also be used to evaluate unexplained bone pain, malignancies of the breast, thyroid, and prostate. Your doctor will determine if a bone scan is necessary.

How will the exam be scheduled?

Your doctor will schedule the examination. When the exam is scheduled, your doctor must send a written order detailing the type of exam you should receive and the region of interest. You should also request a copy of this written order, and you should bring it with you to your appointment. According to Massachusetts state law, the technologist cannot inject the radiotracer without a written order from your doctor. Your examination will be delayed if we do not receive a written order.

When your examination is scheduled, your doctor will be told the time for your injection, the time for imaging, and the expected length of time for the complete examination. These times are provided to help you plan your visit to our laboratory. It is possible that your imaging appointment could change by as much as 1 hour, based on activity in the lab on the day of your appointment.

As you plan your visit to our lab, please remember that children under the age of 12 are not permitted within the Nuclear Medicine waiting room or laboratory areas.

How should I prepare for the examination?

There is no special preparation for a bone scan. The radiotracers are not known to cause any side effects or adverse interactions with food or prescription drugs. You should continue to take your prescribed medications.

If you are scheduled to have another examination on the same day as your bone scan, you should follow any preparations recommended for that study.

If x-rays or other images of the region of interest have been taken, you should bring copies of those films with you to your appointment. Seeing those films may help the nuclear medicine physician interpret the images from your bone scan. Because x-ray films can be helpful in making a diagnosis, we may also ask you to have x-rays taken on the day of your bone scan appointment.

What happens during the examination?

Prior to receiving her injection, any woman between the ages of 12 and 56 will be asked if she might be pregnant. If you think you might be pregnant, you should talk to your doctor about it before having a nuclear medicine examination.

A technologist will inject the appropriate dose of radiotracer. The injection will take 5-15 minutes. If your doctor has ordered the exam because you might have an infection of the bone or a particular type of fracture, images may be taken during the injection of the radiotracer. For most studies, however, you will simply be asked to wait for two to four hours before any images are taken. While you wait, you will be asked to drink at least four 8-oz. servings of liquid—any beverage is fine. You should also try to urinate frequently to help eliminate any excess tracer from your body. You may spend the time in our waiting room, but you may also leave the hospital and return at the scheduled time for imaging. Any change to your imaging schedule would be told to you when you get your injection.

After the tracer has been absorbed, you will return to the lab for imaging. The technologist will ask you to lie on your back on a bed positioned between a set of cameras. Once you are comfortable on the bed, the imaging will begin. The bed will slide, and the cameras will pass above and below you from your head to your feet. The cameras move up and down, following the contours of your body. They will come quite close to you. If you are severely claustrophobic, you may ask your doctor for an appropriate prescription to help you relax. The imaging portion of the examination typically lasts 30 minutes to 1 hour. If necessary (for example, if you need a restroom break), imaging can be interrupted. It is important, however, that you remain still while the cameras are on—movement can ruin the images, and the nuclear medicine physician may have difficulty interpreting them accurately.

After the scan is complete, you will be able to resume normal daily activities. There will be no restrictions on eating or drinking. The radiotracers do not cause drowsiness, so you will be able to drive.

How will I receive the results?

A nuclear medicine physician will review and interpret the images obtained during your study. The results of your bone scan will be provided to your doctor within 48 hours.

Are there any side effects?

Most people do not experience any side effects from the radiotracer.

Is the radiation dangerous?

Nuclear medicine examinations do involve the use of a small amount of radiation. The tracer dose is calculated to minimize radiation exposure while providing accurate test results.

Nuclear medicine studies may not be appropriate for pregnant women or those who are breastfeeding. If you think you may be pregnant, discuss this with your doctor. Of course, it is always important to consider the benefits of any diagnostic study along with the risks. In some cases, the importance of making the correct diagnosis outweighs the potential risk to the unborn baby. Your doctor can explain your options.

If you are breastfeeding, you should not nurse your baby for approximately 36 hours after the radiotracer injection, since radiation can be passed through the breast milk. Prepare for your examination by pumping and saving milk for 24-48 hours before your examination, then bottle-feed your baby during the hours following your appointment.

The radiation administered during a nuclear medicine study is eliminated from you body through the kidneys. For that reason, you should drink plenty of fluids and urinate frequently following your examination.

Nuclear Medicine Patient Education Bone Scan

Glossary terms

  • Cellulitis: Inflammation of the connective tissues between the bones
  • Osteomyelitis: Inflammation of the bone marrow and surrounding bone
  • Radioactive isotope: A particular form of an element, such as iodine, which releases energy spontaneously


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