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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

A bone scan uses radiation to make images showing areas of bone where cells are unusually active. Unusually active cells can indicate cancer, bone trauma, infection or other disorders.

First, a radioactive chemical called an isotope is injected into a vein. The isotope enters the bloodstream and travels to the bones, where it emits gamma rays, which are similar to X-rays. A gamma camera can detect gamma rays. A computer analyzes the rays and forms an image (or scan) of the bones. Areas with potential problems send out more intense rays and appear as bright spots on the scan.

A bone scan is painless, except for a mild skin prick to inject the isotope. It takes about three hours for the isotope to travel to the bones. During this time, you usually can leave the facility and return for the scan later, which generally takes about an hour.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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