Gallbladder Scan

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is a gallbladder scan?

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.  

Why is a gallbladder scan performed? 

Your doctor may recommend a gallbladder scan to diagnose diseases and conditions of the gallbladder, liver or bile ducts including:

  • Bile duct abnormalities such as congenital malformations

  • Bile duct infection (cholangitis)

  • Bile duct leaks 

  • Bile duct obstruction, possibly due to a gallstone

  • Gallbladder infection

  • Gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis)

  • Gallstones (cholelithiasis)

  • Biliary dyskinesia, or improper gallbladder emptying

  • Liver infection or disease

  • Rejection of a newly-transplanted liver

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. 

How is a gallbladder scan performed?

Your gallbladder scan will be performed in a hospital or outpatient setting. The procedure takes one to two hours and generally includes these steps:

  1. You will dress in a patient gown. 

  2. A team member will start an intravenous (IV) line and inject you with a small amount of radioactive chemical called a tracer. The tracer moves through your veins to your liver, bile ducts, and gallbladder, giving off gamma rays. Gamma rays are a type of radiation.

  3. You will lie face-up on a table beneath a gamma ray scanner. This machine will detect the gamma rays in your body, creating images of your liver, bile ducts, and gallbladder. These real-time pictures show how quickly your bile moves and reveals blockages and other problems. 

  4. The scanner will move above you and take images every five to ten minutes for about an hour. You will need to lie very still during this time to help make the clearest images possible.

  5. You may receive an injection of morphine, which is a narcotic drug that also promotes the movement of the tracer into the gallbladder. This is done when the images do not show enough detail. This may make you sleepy.

  6. You may be asked to drink a high –fat content drink to encourage the gallbladder to contract and empty.

Will I feel pain?

You may feel mild and temporary discomfort from your injection and a flushing sensation as the tracer moves through your bloodstream. Tell a member of your healthcare team if you have pain or any discomfort does not pass quickly.

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

  • Headache

  • 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.

How do I prepare for my gallbladder scan?

You are an important member of your own healthcare team. The steps you take before your gallbladder scan can help obtain the most accurate results. You can prepare for a gallbladder scan by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical
    conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Not eating or drinking prior to the procedure as directed by your doctor. This may include not eating or drinking certain (or any) food or beverages for two to four hours before the procedure. 

  • Notifying your doctor if there is any chance of pregnancy or if you are breastfeeding. A gallbladder scan can affect your unborn child or breast milk.

  • Taking or stopping medications before the procedure exactly as directed by your doctor 

Questions to ask your doctor

Preparing for a diagnostic procedure can be stressful. It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a doctor’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment.  Contact your doctor with concerns and questions before a gall bladder scan and between appointments. 

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointments. Questions can include:

  • Why do I need a gallbladder scan? 

  • How much radiation will I be exposed to?

  • How long will the procedure take? When can I go home?

  • What restrictions will I have before and after the procedure? When can return to work and other activities?

  • How should I take my medications? 

  • How will you treat my pain?

  • When will I receive the results of my test?

  • What other tests or treatments might I need?

  • When should I follow up with you?

  • How should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

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.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 24
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