A liver and spleen scan is a nuclear scan that is done to look at these organs for disease.
During a liver and spleen scan, a radioactive tracer substance is put into a vein (IV) in the arm. It moves through the blood to the liver and spleen. Areas of the liver and spleen where the tracer collects in large amounts show up as bright spots in the pictures. Areas where the tracer collects in low amounts or does not show up are seen as dark spots. The pattern in which the tracer spreads through the liver and spleen can help find cysts, abscesses, certain types of tumors, or problems with liver function.
Scans of the liver and the spleen are done at the same time.
Why It Is Done
A liver and spleen scan is done to:
How To Prepare
Before your liver and spleen scan, tell your doctor if you:
- Are or might be pregnant.
- You are breastfeeding. The radioactive tracer used in this test can get into your breast milk. Do not breastfeed your baby for 2 days after this test. During this time, you can give your baby breast milk you stored before the test, or you can give formula. Discard the breast milk you pump for 2 days after the test.
- Have had an X-ray test using barium contrast material (such as a barium enema) or have taken a medicine (such as Pepto-Bismol) that has bismuth in the last 4 days. Barium and bismuth can block a clear picture.
You will empty your bladder right before the scan.
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form ( What is a PDF document? ).
How It Is Done
You will need to take off any jewelry. You may need to take off all or most of your clothes. You will be given a gown to wear during the test.
During the test
The technologist cleans the site on your arm where the radioactive tracer will be injected. A small amount of the radioactive tracer is then injected.
You will lie on your back on a table and a large scanning camera will be placed right above you. It may move slowly above and around your body, scanning for the tracer and recording pictures as the tracer moves into your liver and spleen. The camera does not give off any radiation, so you are not exposed to more radiation during the scan.
You may be asked to move into different positions so the tracer spreads through the liver and spleen. You need to lie very still during each scan so the pictures are clear. You may be asked to hold your breath briefly during some of the scans.
A liver and spleen scan takes about 1 hour.
How It Feels
You may feel nothing at all from the needle in your vein, or you may feel a quick sting or pinch. You may find it hard to lie still during the scan. Ask for a pillow or blanket to make yourself as comfortable as possible before the scan begins.
Allergic reactions to the radioactive tracer are rare.
In some cases, you may develop soreness or swelling at the injection site. Try putting a moist, warm pack on your arm.
Anytime you're exposed to radiation, there's a small chance of damage to cells or tissue. That's the case even with the low-level radioactive tracer used for this test. But the chance of damage is very low compared with the benefits of the test.
Most of the tracer will leave your body through your urine or stool within a day. So be sure to flush the toilet right after you use it, and wash your hands well with soap and water. The amount of radiation in the tracer is very small. This means it isn't a risk for people to be around you after the test.
A liver and spleen scan is a nuclear scan that is done to look at these organs for disease. The results of a liver and spleen scan are ready in 2 days.
Normal amounts of the radioactive tracer are found in the liver and spleen. No areas of large or small amounts of tracer are seen.
The liver and spleen are normal in size, shape, and location.
The tracer pattern in the liver may show diseases.
The tracer pattern in the spleen may not be in the right place or may show spleen tissue that was missed during surgery to remove the spleen (splenectomy).
The liver or spleen may be enlarged because of a disease or may have an abnormal shape because a tumor is pressing against the organ.
Certain types of tumors may cause large amounts of tracer to collect in the liver or spleen.
Certain types of tumors may cause no tracer to collect in the liver or spleen.
Some conditions cause more tracer to show up in the spleen than in the liver.
What Affects the Test
Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:
- Being pregnant. A liver and spleen scan is usually not done during pregnancy because the radiation could damage the developing baby (fetus).
- Using barium or bismuth. If a liver and spleen scan is needed, it should be done before any tests that use barium (such as a barium enema).
- Not being able to lie still during the test.
What To Think About
- Computed tomography (CT) scanning and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are often done now instead of a liver and spleen scan to check for problems with these organs.
- If a liver and spleen scan show problems, more tests such as a liver biopsy, an ultrasound, or X-rays may be done.
- Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) is a special scan method that may be used during a liver and spleen scan. After the radioactive tracer is injected, a special camera (called a scintillation camera) takes pictures from several views.
- Special types of scans to check the spleen or liver are done by collecting a blood sample from the person. These blood cells are "tagged" with a radioactive tracer. These tagged cells are then given back to the person. One type of scan can show if some part of the spleen is still in the body after surgery to remove the spleen (splenectomy). Another type of tagged red blood cell scan is used to find certain liver problems or areas of bleeding.
Other Works Consulted
- Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
- Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2010). Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.
Current as of: March 28, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Howard Schaff MD - Diagnostic Radiology