A nuclear medicine bone scan shows the effects of injury or disease (such as cancer) or infection on the bones. A nuclear medicine bone scan also shows whether there has been any improvement or deterioration in a bone abnormality after treatment.

A radioactive material (radiopharmaceutical) is injected into a vein, attaches to the bones and is detected by a special camera (gamma camera) that takes images or pictures that show how the bones are working.

Nuclear medicine bone scans are carried out for many different reasons.

Bone scans image both the structure and the active cell growth of the bones, so are often used in conjunction with other imaging e.g. X-rays, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

They are often used as a follow-up test when the cause of your pain or symptoms needs to be clarified, for example:

  • to evaluate the source of bone pain; for example, foot or hip pain
  •  to evaluate the findings from other diagnostic images or abnormal laboratory results

Listed below are some common reasons why your doctor may refer you for a bone scan:

  • difficult to find fractures, stress fractures, shin splints
  • osteomyelitis (infection of the bone), cellulitis (infection of the skin) or to assess a response to treatment (e.g. antibiotics) you might be having
  • arthritis, Paget’s disease, fractures from osteoporosis (where bones become fragile and are more likely to break)
  • to assess the presence or spread of cancer in bone, then to follow up on the response to treatment
  • complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS or previously known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy), avascular necrosis, prosthesis loosening or infection.

A bone scan helps your doctor evaluate how your bones are working, and provides information to help diagnose and treat your condition. It can show injury to the bones, the effects of disease such as cancer or infection, as well as any improvement or deterioration in a bone abnormality after any treatment you might be having.