Making the invisible body visible. Bone scans, osteoporosis and women's bodily experiences

Soc Sci Med. 2006 Jun;62(11):2720-31. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.11.009. Epub 2005 Dec 13.


The imaging technology of bone scans allows visualization of the bone structure, and determination of a numerical value. Both these are subjected to professional interpretation according to medical (epidemiological) evidence to estimate the individual's risk of fractures. But when bodily experience is challenged by a visual diagnosis, what effect does this have on an individual? The aim of this study was to explore women's bodily experiences after a bone scan and to analyse how the scan affects women's self-awareness, sense of bodily identity and integrity. We interviewed 16 Danish women (aged 61-63) who had had a bone scan for osteoporosis. The analysis was based on Merleau-Ponty's perspective of perception as an embodied experience in which bodily experience is understood to be the existential ground of culture and self. Women appeared to take the scan literally and planned their lives accordingly. They appeared to believe that the 'pictures' revealed some truth in themselves. The information supplied by the scan fostered a new body image. The women interpreted the scan result (a mark on a curve) to mean bodily fragility which they incorporated into their bodily perception. The embodiment of this new body image produced new symptom interpretations and preventive actions, including caution. The result of the bone scan and its cultural interpretation triggered a reconstruction of the body self as weak with reduced capacity. Women's interpretation of the bone scan reorganized their lived space and time, and their relations with others and themselves. Technological information about osteoporosis appeared to leave most affected women more uncertain and restricted rather than empowered. The findings raise some fundamental questions concerning the use of medical technology for the prevention of asymptomatic disorders.

MeSH terms

  • Body Image*
  • Bone and Bones
  • Cohort Studies
  • Denmark
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Middle Aged
  • Osteoporosis / psychology*
  • Self Concept*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed*