The Use of Bone Scan Nuclear Scintigraphy in Horses

Modern science has given us a number of new tools for medical examinations, and several of these are now being used in veterinary medicine as an aid in diagnosing lameness problems. “Bone scan” or nuclear scintigraphy as a means for imaging the musculoskeletal system of horses was first reported as a tool for use in diagnosing lameness in 1977. Since then, many researchers and an increasing number of clinicians have been using this technology. As the equipment to do it has become more affordable, the value of nuclear scintigraphy for the lameness clinician has become more apparent.

Kent Allen, an equine veterinarian in private practice at Middleburg, Virginia (specializing in lameness, diagnostic imaging and prepurchase exams), says lameness in performance horses is often subtle in nature, and bone scan technology is very useful in arriving at a diagnosis. These are often not really lamenesses, per se. The horse may be just a little off or not performing as it should. He says most veterinarians are more comfortable dealing with actual lameness problems, where it is not as difficult to pinpoint the area of concern. The hard part, says Allen, is when someone brings in a horse that’s not performing at peak ability. Perhaps it’s “not quite right behind”. In earlier days, the veterinarian would do some diagnostic tests such as flexing the leg to try to see if the problem was in the hock, and maybe you’d never be really sure. Without a good way to pinpoint the problem, sometimes all a veterinarian could say to the horse owner was to bring the horse back when it was lamer. In the past dozen years, however, we’ve developed more advanced diagnostic technology such as ultrasound and better methods of radiology (digital radiographs), but the biggest move forward has been in physiological realms such as thermography (detecting temperature differences in certain areas of the body) and nuclear scintigraphy or bone scan, according to Allen.