Gall bladder radionuclide scan

Alternative names
Radionuclide - gallbladder; Gallbladder scan; Biliary scan; Cholescintigraphy

This is a test that uses a gamma emitting tracer (radioactive material) to assess gallbladder function, and/or look for an infected gallbladder or obstructed bile ducts.

How the test is performed
First, the tracer (a radioactive chemical that will collect primarily in the liver and then is excreted with bile into the gallbladder) is injected into a vein (usually at the bend in the arm). The scan is then performed.

You lie face up on a table under the scanning camera (gamma scintillation camera). The scanner will detect the gamma rays being emitted from the tracer. The image of where the tracer is found in the organs is transmitted to a computer. The computer displays the image on the monitor and saves the information for future reference. A technician will operate the computer and scanner and will monitor the findings.

The test will take about 1 to 2 hours. Images take about 1 minute to acquire and are taken every 5 to 10 minutes for the first half hour and every 15 minutes during the next 90 minutes if needed.

How to prepare for the test
You will be instructed not to eat or drink anything for 4 hours (or longer) before the test. You must sign an informed consent form.

For Infants and children:
The preparation you can provide for this test depends on your child’s age and previous experiences. For specific information regarding how you can prepare your child, see the following topics:

  • infant test or procedure preparation (birth to 1 year)  
  • toddler test or procedure preparation (1 to 3 years)  
  • preschooler test or procedure preparation (3 to 6 years)  
  • schoolage test or procedure preparation (6 to 12 years)  
  • adolescent test or procedure preparation (12 to 18 years)

How the test will feel
When the tracer is injected into the vein, there will be a sharp prick from the needle. After the injection, the puncture site may be sore. There is no pain during the scan.

Why the test is performed
This test is very good for detecting acute infection of the gallbladder or blockage of a bile duct. It is also helpful in determining whether there is rejection of a transplanted liver.

What abnormal results mean

  • cholecystitis (gallbladder infection)  
  • infection of the gallbladder, ducts, or liver  
  • gallstones  
  • bile duct obstruction  
  • bile leaks or abnormal ducts (resulting from cysts, etc.)  
  • biliary anomalies (abnormal anatomy of the bile system)  
  • transplant rejection (after liver transplant)  
  • liver disease  
  • cancer of the hepatobiliary system

What the risks are

There is a small risk to pregnant or nursing mothers because the fetus or small child has a greater sensitivity to radioactive chemicals. Unless it is absolutely necessary, the scan will be delayed.

The amount of radiation is small (less than that of a conventional X-ray) and is virtually gone from the body within 1 or 2 days. With increased number of scans, there is some radiation risk.

Special considerations
Since this test is usually not performed unless there is acute pain, suspected gallbladder disease, or gall stones, many patients require special attention after the results of the test are known. If necessary, combined with other imaging (such as CT or ultrasound), the patient may be prepared for surgery following the gallbladder scan.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 4, 2012
by Amalia K. Gagarina, M.S., R.D.

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