Nuclear Scintigraphy

If you’ve ever had a horse with a mysterious lameness, you know how frustrating and expensive it can be to try and locate the problem. Although today’s veterinarians come armed with a veritable truck-full of high tech digital equipment, knowing where to look and how to find the exact cause is still quite a task.

For the horse owner who has tried everything, nuclear scintigraphy (also known as a bone scan) could be the answer you have been looking for. The process is relatively straightforward and does not cause any distress or pain to the horse. Many veterinary hospitals now have a gamma camera, which is used to perform this diagnostic procedure.

The horse is sedated and then injected with a radioisotope, which travels through the body and allows the camera to pick up any “hot spots” that indicate inflammation. This procedure is ideal for localizing problems in the upper hind leg and back, areas which were previously difficult to examine with traditional imaging techniques. The entire procedure takes less than two hours, however horses are typically held at the hospital for an additional 48-72 hours to allow the radioisotope to pass harmlessly out of the body before they can go home.

A bone scan gives vets a better look inside your horse

Nuclear scintigraphy works as a starting point for vets to investigate further. Once areas of concern have been identified via the bone scan, the veterinarians can utilize ultrasonography (ultrasound), digital radiography (xrays), arthroscopy, nerve blocks and more to find out what the exact cause of the lameness is. In many cases, the horse has several “problem spots” which were previously not identified and allows the vet to formulate a comprehensive rehabilitation plan. This could include corticosteroid injections, surgery, chiropractic, saddle fit, Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy, stem cell therapy, shockwave treatment, cold laser, massage, Interleukin-1 Receptor Antagonist Protein (IRAP), mesotherapy, stall rest, cold hosing and more.

While nuclear scintigraphy is not 100% guaranteed to locate the problem (occasionally older soft tissue injuries or strains may not light up if they are not actively inflamed), it is becoming the new gold standard in establishing a diagnosis where traditional methods have failed. Many owners report being very satisfied with the results of their horse’s bone scan. To read first-hand accounts of owners’ experiences with bone scans, check out the Chronicle of the Horse’s health bulletin board.

The price of a bone scan ranges from hospital to hospital, however typically a “half horse” starts at $600-$800, with a “whole horse” scan being marginally more at $1200. (Note: call your local equine hospital for an accurate quote!) It is worth noting that this is only the cost for the bone scan, not any other diagnostics such as xrays or treatments such as injections or surgery. Although it may seem expensive, the average horse owner can easily accumulate bills in this price range attempting to block/inject/xray/ultrasound various body parts with no results.

Equine hospitals that are well-known for their equine diagnostics include Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, KY and the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ontario.

(Have you tried a bone scan on your horse? Share your experience with other horse owners on our Facebook page.)