Panel findings and recommendations:
- A bone scan is recommended to evaluate low back problems when spinal tumor, infection, or occult fracture is suspected from "Red Flags" on medical history, physical examination, or collaborative lab test or plain x-ray findings. Bone scans are contraindicated during pregnancy.
(Strength of Evidence
Bone scanning, a type of radionuclide imaging, involves intravenous injection of radioactive compounds known to adhere to metabolically active bone. Gamma detectors localize regions of uptake. Most of the bone-seeking compounds used contain the radionuclide technetium-99m with low localizing dosage that lasts for a few hours and but should not be given to pregnant women. The diagnostic objective is to detect occult fractures, infections, and bony metastases of the spine and to differentiate them from common benign pathology such as degenerative aging changes or old fractures. ***
Of 26 articles screened for this topic, 5 met criteria for review.262
Evidence on Efficacy.
In the studies reviewed, bone scan was used to detect several different clinical conditions: stress fracture injuries of the pars interarticularis;263
spine infections; 266
metastatic cancer and other systemic disease;265
and symptomatic spondylolysis.263
All of these studies either evaluated mixed patient groups with both acute and chronic problems or did not report symptom duration.264
There were no studies focusing specifically on patients with low back pain.
The reference standard used depended on the clinical condition to be assessed. Included were: clinical diagnoses;262
clinical followup or autopsy;266
and biopsy with microbial cultures.266
Schütte and Park265
evaluated bone scans for two groups. One group comprised 138
patients with a history of malignancy. In the other group, 38 patients with no previously recognized systemic disease had "nonspecific" low back pain and normal x-rays, but with strong clinical suspicion of an underlying serious condition causing the back pain. Of these 38 patients with "nonspecific" low back pain, 14 (37 percent) were later found to have a systemic disease. Of the 14 patients, 13 had elevated ESRs, but only 7 had positive bone scans (all 7 also with high ESRs). Of patients with a history of malignancy, 40 percent had positive bone scans determined on followup to be metastases and 14 percent had osteoporotic rib or vertebral fractures.
The authors concluded that bone scan has a high yield in patients with known malignancy. In patients where clinical suspicion of an underlying serious problem was high, but who had no known malignancy and normal x-rays, ESR detected 93 percent of those with systemic disease. Bone scan detected only 50 percent of these cases. The authors concluded that bone scan has a low yield in patients with longstanding low back problems and normal x-rays and lab tests.
Whalen, Brown, McLeod, et al.266
evaluated patients with low back pain who had extensive diagnostic workups because of suspected spinal infections, and who then had open biopsy or percutaneous needle aspiration for culture and microbiologic diagnosis. Duration of symptoms before workup ranged from 2 weeks to 4 years (37 percent with symptoms for less than 3 months). One subgroup of 19 patients had all of these tests before spinal biopsy: technetium-99m (Tc-99m) bone scan, indium-111 (In-111) white blood cell (WBC) bone scan, plain lumbar x-rays, and ESR. Of the 19 patients, 16 had spinal infections confirmed on culture of biopsy material.
For the 16 patients, true positive rates were: 81 percent for Tc-99m bone scan, 19 percent for In-111 WBC bone scan, 44 percent for plain x-rays, 82 percent for ESR > 20, and 56 percent for ESR > 50. False- negative rates for diagnosing spinal infection were: 3 of 3 (100 percent) for Tc-99m bone scan, 14 of 17 (82 percent) for In-111 WBC bone scan, 8 of 11 (73 percent) for plain x-rays, 2 of 2 (100 percent) for ESR > 20, and 6 of 8 (75 percent) for ESR > 50. Half the infections were attributed to prior spinal surgery or instrumentation, with the rest attributed to hematogenous spread.
Miron, Khan, Wiesen, et al.264
evaluated the accuracy of a quantitative bone scan technique, scintigraphy, for diagnosing sacroiliitis
in various groups of patients. First, 90 subjects with no history of low back symptoms
were evaluated with the test to establish age- and sex-specific normal values for a sacroiliac index
. A positive test was defined as a sacroiliac index greater than two standard deviations above the mean for normals. In evaluating patients with low back pain, the test was positive in 50 percent of 18 patients who had signs and symptoms of active sacroiliitis. The test was positive in only 7 percent (1 patient) of 14 patients who had low back pain, but no clinical, x-ray, or CT
-scan evidence of sacroiliitis. The authors concluded that this test has a low true positive rate (50 percent), but high true negative rate
(93 percent) for diagnosing sacroiliitis.
Esdaile, Rosenthall, Terkeltaub, et al.262
evaluated Tc-99m bone scan scintigraphy for diagnosing sacroiliitis
. Normal values for sacroiliac joint-to-sacrum ratios
on scintigraphy were established in 18 controls with no clinical evidence of inflammatory back pain. These ratios were found abnormally elevated in 66 percent of 12 patients considered to have "possible" ankylosing spondylitis and in 46 percent of 22 patients considered to have "definite" ankylosing spondylitis based on clinical and x-ray findings. (More specific early in the disease before obvious on plain radiographs
) At the time of the initial testing, all patients were taking very little or no anti-inflammatory medication
. All were then treated with such medication. The S1 joint-to-sacrum ratios significantly decreased after treatment. The authors concluded that this technique is not a useful screening technique to detect early ankylosing spondylitis.
Potential Harms and Costs.
The primary potential complications of bone scan involve exposure to ionizing radiation from the radionuclide injected. The total radiation dose to the patient is equivalent to a set of lumbar spine x-rays. This test is contraindicated during pregnancy. The radionuclide may be found in breast milk, and breast feeding must be discontinued for a brief interval after the test. Bone scans are moderately expensive.
Summary of Findings.
The bone scan is a moderately sensitive test for detecting suspected tumor, infection, or occult fractures of the vertebrae in patients with low back pain, but not for specifying the diagnosis. A positive bone scan suggesting one of these conditions will usually need to be confirmed using other diagnostic tests or procedures. Bone scan has been shown to be moderately sensitive for detecting metastases to the spine in patients with a previously established diagnosis of cancer who present with low back problems. Bone scan also appears to be effective for detecting serious conditions, such as tumor, infection, or fracture, in patients where there is suspicion of these problems based on clinical findings. Bone scan appears to be more accurate than plain x-ray for detecting these conditions. No studies were found comparing the relative accuracy of bone scan versus CT
scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI
) scan for detecting the conditions.
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