What is a liver scan?
A liver scan is an imaging test to look at your liver and see how well it is working. This test may also be called a liver-spleen scan because the doctor often looks at the spleen at the same time. The spleen is near the liver and works closely with it.
A liver scan is a type of nuclear imaging test. This means that a tiny amount of a radioactive matter is used during the scan. The radioactive matter (radioactive tracer) is absorbed by normal liver tissue. The rest of the radioactive tracer is absorbed by your spleen and bone marrow.
The radioactive tracer sends out gamma rays. These are picked up by the scanner to make a picture of your liver.
The areas of the liver where the radioactive tracer collects in greater amounts are called "hot spots." The areas that do not absorb the tracer and appear less bright on the scan image are referred to as "cold spots."
Why might I need a liver scan?
A liver scan may be done to look for diseases such as cancer, hepatitis, or cirrhosis. The scan can also see tumors, abscesses, or cysts of the liver or spleen. It can also see if your liver or spleen is larger than normal. It can be used to diagnose high blood pressure in your liver (portal hypertension).
A liver scan may be done to see how well the liver or spleen is working after trauma to the abdomen. You may also have this scan if you have pain in the upper right area of your abdomen.
You may need this scan if you have liver disease. Your healthcare provider may use the scan to see how well your treatment is working. Or he or she can see how the disease has progressed.
Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to recommend a liver scan.
What are the risks of a liver scan?
The risk from the radioactive tracer is very low. The amount used in the test is very small. You may feel some slight discomfort when the tracer is injected. Allergic reactions to the tracer are rare, but they may happen.
Lying on the scanning table during the procedure may cause some discomfort or pain for certain people.
Tell your healthcare provider if you:
- Are allergic to or sensitive to medicines, contrast dyes, or latex.
- Are pregnant or think that you might be pregnant. The scan may not be safe for the fetus.
- Are breastfeeding. The tracer may contaminate your breast milk.
You may have other risks that are unique to you. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider before the procedure.
Certain things may make a liver scan less accurate. These include:
- Having radioactive tracer in your body from another recent nuclear medicine test
- Having barium in your digestive tract from a recent barium test
How do I get ready for a liver scan?
- Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure to you. Ask him or her any questions you have about the procedure.
- You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully and ask questions if anything is not clear.
- You don’t usually need to stop eating or drinking before the scan.
- Tell your provider if you are allergic to or sensitive to latex, medicines, contrast dyes, or iodine.
- Tell your provider if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant.
- Follow any other instructions your provider gives you to get ready.
What happens during a liver scan?
You may have a liver scan as an outpatient or as part of your stay in a hospital. The way the test is done may vary depending on your condition and your healthcare provider's practices.
Generally, a liver scan follows this process:
- You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewelry, or other objects that may get in the way of the test.
- You will be asked to remove clothing. You will be given a gown to wear.
- An intravenous (IV) line will be started in the hand or arm so that you can be given the radioactive tracer.
- The radioactive tracer will be injected into your vein. The tracer will be allowed to collect in the liver tissue for about 30 minutes. If it takes longer for the tracer to collect, you may be asked to come back the next day to finish the scan.
- You will be asked to lie still on a scanning table. You will need to stay still during the scan. If you move, it may affect the quality of the scan.
- The scanner will be placed over your belly (abdomen).
- The technologist may move you during the scan to get images of all the surfaces of the liver.
- When the scan is done, the IV line will be removed.
The liver scan is not painful. But you may have some discomfort or pain from lying still during the test. This may because of recent surgery or a joint injury. The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and do the scan as quickly as possible to minimize any discomfort or pain.
What happens after a liver scan?
You should move slowly when getting up from the scanner table to avoid any dizziness or lightheadedness.
You may be told to drink plenty of fluids and empty your bladder often for about a day after the scan. This will help flush the tracer from your body.
The medical staff will check the IV site for any signs of redness or swelling. Tell your healthcare provider if you see any pain, redness, or swelling at the IV site after you go home. These may be signs of infection or another type of reaction.
You may go back to your usual diet and activities as directed by your healthcare provider.
Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions, depending on your situation.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
- The name of the test or procedure
- The reason you are having the test or procedure
- The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
- When and where you are to have the test or procedure and who will do it
- When and how will you get the results
- How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure
Online Medical Reviewer:
MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer:
Moloney Johns, Amanda, PA-C, MPAS, BBA
Date Last Reviewed:
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.