Test Overview

A liver and spleen
scan is a
nuclear scan that is done to look at these organs for

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
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

  • Check for diseases of the
    spleen or
    liver. If liver disease has been diagnosed, a liver
    scan can help show how well the liver is working.
  • Look for cancer
    in the liver.
  • See if cancer has spread (metastasized) to the liver
    or spleen.
  • Show the condition of the liver and spleen after a belly

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

A liver and spleen scan is often done
by a nuclear medicine technologist. The scan pictures are read by a
radiologist or
nuclear medicine specialist.

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

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.

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. Most of the tracer will be
passed from your body (through your urine or stool) in a day. Be sure to flush
the toilet right away and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water to
prevent anyone else from being in touch with the tracer. The amount of
radiation used in the scan is so small that people can be in contact with you
following the test.

In some cases, you may develop soreness or
swelling at the injection site. Try putting a moist, warm pack on your

There is always a small chance of damage to cells or tissue
from being exposed to any radiation, even the low level radioactive tracer used
for this 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.

Liver and spleen scan


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 shows a
cyst, an
abscess, a collection of blood (hematoma), a lump made
up of blood vessels (hemangioma), or a tumor.

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

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
  • 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


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.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Howard Schaff, MD – Diagnostic Radiology

Current as ofOctober 9, 2017