Bone scans can be helpful for diagnosing back pain

Bone scans are commonly used for diagnosing back pain. These tests use radioactive materials (tracers) to reveal parts of the body where there is a high amount of bone turnover. If you’ve been scheduled for a bone scan, this article can help you prepare for the test.

What to expect during your bone scan

The bone scan procedure has two parts. In the first phase, a small amount of a radioactive tracer will be injected into one of your veins. Getting the injection does not take very long, although it may take several hours for the tracer to travel throughout your body. A few images may be taken right away, but the main scans will be performed approximately two to four hours after the injection. You may be able to eat, drink and move about while you wait, but be sure to check with your physician first.

During the scan itself, you’ll be asked to lie still on a table while a radiosensitive camera passes back and forth over your body. If only a small part of your spine is being scanned, the process can take as little as five to 10 minutes. However, if your full skeletal structure is being studied, the scan can take closer to a half hour. The process is painless and, unlike an MRI, you won’t be enclosed in a machine.

Conditions that can be revealed by bone scans when diagnosing back pain

Bone scans can indicate the presence of a fracture, tumor or bone infection. These images can also be helpful for diagnosing facet disease and osteoarthritis. However, because bone scans cannot differentiate among the various causes of bone pain and do not capture images of soft tissues, they are typically followed by other imaging tests such as MRIs, CT scans or X-rays.