A gallbladder scan, also known as a HIDA (hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid) scan, is a procedure that uses a radioactive substance to take pictures of your gallbladder, liver, and bile ducts. A gallbladder scan shows how well your gallbladder is working and diagnoses blockages and infections of the bile ducts, most commonly from gallstones.
Your doctor may order a gallbladder scan if you have upper right-side abdominal pain or jaundice (yellowing of the skin).
Your liver produces bile to help digest food. Bile travels through bile ducts to the gallbladder for storage. During digestion, bile moves through the bile duct into the small intestine. Sometimes a gallstone can block a bile duct, causing irritation, pain, and swelling of the gallbladder (cholecystitis).
This can also lead to a gallbladder infection. These problems can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and jaundice.
A gallbladder scan is also called a hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid scan (HIDA scan), gallbladder radionuclide scan, hepatobiliary scan, cholescintigraphy, or hepatobiliary scintigraphy.
A gallbladder scan is only one method used to diagnose conditions of the gallbladder, liver and bile ducts. Discuss all of your testing options with your doctor to understand which options are right for you.
Reasons for the procedure
A gallbladder scan may be performed in situations where gallbladder disease (cholecystitis) is suspected, such as with severe acute right upper abdominal quadrant pain or when jaundice (yellowed skin and/or eyes) is present. Elevated liver enzymes in a specific blood test may also indicate some type of gallbladder disease.
A gallbladder scan may also be helpful in diagnosing biliary duct obstructions and determining gallbladder function.
There may be other reasons for your doctor to recommend a gallbladder scan.
Who performs a gallbladder scan?
A radiologic technologist will assist a doctor to complete your gallbladder scan. A radiologic technologist is a medical professional who is specialized in medical imaging and the care of patients during imaging procedures.
Doctors who perform gallbladder scans include:
- Radiologists, sometimes called diagnostic radiologists, are doctors who specialize in medical imaging.
- Nuclear radiologists are radiologists who further specialize in using imaging technologies and radioactive materials to diagnose and treat disease.
- Nuclear medicine doctors specialize in using radioactive materials to diagnose disease and guide treatment plans.
Risks of the procedure
The amount of the radionuclide injected into your vein for the procedure is small enough that there is no need for precautions against radioactive exposure.
The injection of the radionuclide may cause some slight discomfort. Allergic reactions to the radionuclide are rare, but may occur.
For some patients, having to lie still on the scanning table for the length of the procedure may cause some discomfort or pain.
Patients who are allergic to or sensitive to medications, contrast dyes, or latex should notify their doctor.
If you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, you should notify your health care provider due to the risk of injury to the fetus from a gallbladder scan.
If you are lactating, or breastfeeding, you should notify your health care provider due to the risk of contaminating breast milk with the radionuclide.
There may be other risks depending on your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your doctor prior to the procedure.
Certain factors or conditions may interfere with the accuracy of a gallbladder scan. These factors may include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Presence of a radionuclide in the body from a previous nuclear medicine procedure within a certain period of time
- Eating and/or drinking within two to eight hours of the procedure
- Prolonged period of fasting (usually greater than 24 hours)
- Administration of hyperalimentation (a form of IV nutrition)
- Liver disease
What are the risks and potential complications of a gallbladder scan?
Complications of a gallbladder scan are uncommon, but any medical procedure involves risk and potential complications. Complications may become serious in some cases.
Complications can develop during the procedure or your recovery. Risks and potential complications of a gallbladder scan include:
- Adverse or allergic reaction to the tracer injection
- Radiation risks associated with the tracer injection, although the amount of radiation exposure is very small.
Your radiology team follows strict standards for radiographic techniques and will use the lowest amount of radiation possible to produce the best images.
What can I expect after my gallbladder scan?
Knowing what to expect after a gallbladder scan can help you get back to your everyday life as soon as possible.
How will I feel after the gallbladder scan?
People generally return to their normal diet right after a gallbladder scan. Minor after-effects of the procedure may include a headache or minor body aches from lying still during the procedure.
The tracer passes out of your body through your urine and sweat within one to two days. You can help this process by drinking plenty of water.
When can I go home?
Patients often go home right after a gallbladder scan and get the results at a later time. Some people, especially those with severe abdominal pain, discuss the results with the doctor right away and may stay in the hospital for surgery or other treatments.
When should I call my doctor?
It is important to keep your follow-up appointments after a gallbladder scan. Contact your doctor for questions and concerns between appointments.
Call your doctor right away or seek immediate medical care if you have increased or severe abdominal pain, fever, nausea, or vomiting. These symptoms may be a sign that your condition is getting worse.