Why Do I Need a Liver and Spleen Scan?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on August 07, 2022
3 min read

Your liver is one of your largest organs and one of the most important. It makes proteins your body uses for clotting and cholesterol that is turned into hormones, vitamins and cell membranes. It helps turn food into energy, and along with the spleen it acts as a filter that flushes harmful wastes.

But if your liver is injured or diseased, it can have trouble doing its job. If that happens, your doctor might order a liver-spleen scan to find out what’s wrong. The scans give your doctor tons of valuable information. 

A liver scan uses a trace amount of radioactive material, which is also called radionuclide, to take pictures of your liver. The scan is painless.

The procedure is often called a liver-spleen scan because your spleen works closely with your liver, and your doctor might want to examine that organ, too.

  1. Using an IV tube, a radiologist will inject a tiny amount of radioactive material called a tracer into your bloodstream.
  1. The tracer collects in your liver and spleen.
  1. A special device called a gamma camera pinpoints the location of the radioactive tracers.
  1. The device produces detailed, computerized, 3-D images that show how your liver and spleen are functioning. (Areas where the tracers collect in low amounts show up as dark spots. Large amounts of tracers show up as bright, or “hot,” spots).
  1. The radiologist will be able to tell from the scan if your liver has any tumors, abscesses, hematomas, cysts. The images also can show whether the liver and spleen are enlarged.

Liver scans can do several important jobs:

  • Check for liver cancer, hepatitis and cirrhosis
  • Make tumors, abscesses, or cysts of the liver or spleen visible
  • Help doctors see whether and how liver disease is advancing
  • Watch the progress of treatment
  • Look at damage to the liver or spleen from an accident
  • Scan for any unexplained pain

There are few risks for most people when having a liver scan. Although the injection might cause a bit of discomfort, the amount of radioactive material you receive is tiny. Your liver and spleen, or your bone marrow, will absorb it.

A patient might be allergic to the tracers, but this is very rare.

You need to tell your doctor if you’re pregnant, suspect you’re pregnant, or if you’re breastfeeding.

Like any medical test or procedure, you will have to prepare for your liver scan:

  • Tell the radiologist if you’re allergic to any medications, dyes, latex, or iodine
  • Remove your jewelry
  • Be ready to lie still on your back for at least 30 minutes

When the scan is over, drink plenty of fluids afterward and go to the bathroom as often as possible to help flush out any remaining radionuclide.

You can get back to your normal activities, unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

If you notice swelling or redness around the IV site, call your doctor.