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Radionuclide Scanning (Nuclear Scan)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised Dec 2023
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What is a radionuclide scan?

A radionuclide is a chemical that is radioactive. Doctors give you a small dose of the radionuclide. The radionuclide collects in a certain area of the body and gives off radiation that's picked up by a scanner placed over that area. The scanner makes a picture of where the radiation is and how strong it is. This helps show doctors what's going on in the tissue they're testing.

Doctors can give you a radionuclide as:

  • An injection

  • Something to swallow

  • A gas to breathe in

Different radionuclides go to different parts of your body. Doctors pick which radionuclide to use depending on what they need a picture of. A radionuclide scan can help doctors find problems in many parts of your body:

  • Thyroid gland

  • Liver

  • Gallbladder

  • Lungs

  • Urinary tract

  • Bones

  • Brain

  • Certain blood vessels

Why would I need a radionuclide scan?

Doctors usually use this test to find problems such as:

  • Blocked blood flow to your heart

  • Cancer that has spread to your bones or liver

  • Inflammation (swelling and pain) or infection inside organs

  • Bleeding, such as in your intestine

Sometimes, doctors will use the test to see how well a part of your body is working. For example, doctors may see how your heart works when it’s pumping hard by doing the test while you walk or run on a treadmill. If you’ve had a heart attack, doctors may do this test to see how well your heart is recovering.

What happens during a radionuclide scan?

Before the test

  • You may be asked to not eat or drink for several hours before the scan

  • Doctors usually inject the radionuclide in a vein but sometimes have you swallow or breathe it

  • You’ll wait a few minutes or up to several hours while the radionuclide travels through your body

During the scan

  • You’ll lie still on a table while a scanner takes pictures, usually for about 15 minutes

  • Sometimes you’ll need to get another scan after waiting for some more time, possibly hours later

After the scan

Doctors will have you drink lots of water or other liquids to help flush the radionuclide out of your body.

What are the risks of radionuclide scanning?


A radionuclide scan exposes you to much more radiation than a single x-ray X-Rays An x-ray is an imaging test that takes a picture of the inside of your body. It uses a low dose of x-ray radiation. X-rays show body parts according to how dense (solid) they are. Doctors usually... read more . Doctors try to limit the total amount of radiation you are exposed to over your lifetime. Getting too much radiation can raise your chance of getting cancer.

If you’re pregnant or could be pregnant, tell doctors before you get radionuclide scanning.

Radionuclides stay in your body for a few days. If you plan to fly on an airplane within a few days after getting this test, you may set off radioactivity alarms in the airport. Get a doctor’s note to have at the airport.

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