Bone Metastases Explained

Medically Reviewed By Teresa Hagan Thomas PHD, BA, RN
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Bone metastases occur when cancer cells spread to the bones. This can lead to pain, broken bones, and compression of the spinal cord. Treatment for bone metastases often involves medications administered through an IV line or under the skin. Radiation therapy and surgery may also be options.  

This article discusses what bone metastases are. It also covers the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments.

What are bone metastases?

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Bone metastases occur when cancer from another part of the body spreads to the bones. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, around 50% of cancers that originate in an organ can move into the bones.

Bone metastases most often occur in the:

  • long bones of the leg
  • pelvis
  • ribs
  • skull
  • spine
  • upper arm

Bone metastases usually result from prostate cancer or breast cancer. This is true in as many as 70% of cases.

There are three types of bone metastases:

  • Osteolytic: Characterized by the destruction of healthy bone, this type often occurs when the cancer originates in the colon, lung, kidney, or thyroid.
  • Osteoblastic: This type is characterized by the deposit of new bone. This new bone can weaken or deform the other bones in the body. It often occurs when the cancer originates in the bladder, prostate, or stomach.
  • Mixed: Characterized by both the destruction of healthy bone and the deposit of new bone, this type often occurs as a result of breast cancer.

What are the symptoms of bone metastases?

There are four primary symptoms of bone metastases:

  • Pain: This is sometimes intermittent at first, but it can become constant over time.
  • Fractures: Although bone breaks can occur due to an injury or fall, they could also occur while performing everyday activities.
  • Spinal cord compression: Without immediate treatment, the resulting nerve damage could lead to paralysis.
  • High blood calcium: If too much calcium leaks into the bloodstream, it could lead to a condition called hypercalcemia. This is characterized by symptoms such as constipation, confusion, and kidney failure.

If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your healthcare professional right away.

Learn more about cancer here.

What are the causes and risk factors for bone metastases?

Although the cause of bone metastases is cancer cells from other parts of the body spreading to the bone, medical experts do not know why those cancer cells spread.

The most common cancers to spread to the bones are:

  • breast cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • lung cancer
  • melanoma
  • ovarian cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • thyroid cancer

Learn more about breast cancer here.

How do doctors diagnose bone metastases?

As with all medical conditions and diseases, the diagnosis of bone metastases starts with visiting your healthcare professional for a physical exam and documenting your medical history.

Your doctor may then order the following tests:

How do doctors treat bone metastases?

There are several treatment options available for bone metastases, including medications, radiation therapy, and surgery. Learn more about each of those options below.

Medications

These include chemotherapy drugs, hormone therapy drugs, and bisphosphonates. Doctors most often use bisphosphonates, but these can cause a rare but serious side effect: osteonecrosis of the jaw (ONJ).

With ONJ, a part of the jawbone has died. Something as simple as having a tooth removed could trigger this condition. For this reason, it is important to talk with your doctor or dentist before undergoing any dental procedures if you are receiving treatment for bone metastases.

Radiation therapy

With radiation therapy, doctors use high energy rays to target specific areas of the bone to destroy the cancer cells there.

Ablation

This treatment applies heat, cold, or a chemical through needles or narrow probes to destroy the cancerous tumor.

Surgery

Healthcare professionals typically recommend surgery to prevent or repair a broken bone. This can help alleviate pain and strengthen the bone.

If possible, the surgeon will typically remove the cancerous tumor as well. They may also insert wires, pins, rods, screws, plates, and nails to stabilize the bone.

Summary

Bone metastases occur when cancer cells from other parts of the body move into the bone.

Symptoms of bone metastases include pain, broken bones, and compression of the spinal cord. If you already have a diagnosis of cancer — especially breast cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, or thyroid cancer — and you experience these symptoms, contact your healthcare professional right away for an evaluation.

If you have bone metastases, the earlier you receive a diagnosis, the sooner you can start treatment and find relief.

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Medical Reviewer: Teresa Hagan Thomas PHD, BA, RN
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 13
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