A liver scan describes a specialized imaging test that examines the liver to help identify certain conditions, assess liver function, and monitor treatment progress.

The liver is the largest solid organ and gland in the body. It performs vital functions that help support metabolism, digestion, detoxification, and vitamin storage. A liver scan may give doctors valuable information about the health and function of the liver. It may also help with the diagnosis of liver conditions and the identification of abnormal masses.

In this article, we will discuss liver scans, including who may need one, how to prepare for the scan, and how a healthcare professional performs the procedure.

A person receiving a liver scan.Share on Pinterest

A liver scan is a radiology procedure that uses specialized imaging equipment to capture high quality images of the liver. This allows a healthcare professional to carefully examine the liver, which helps to support the diagnosis and treatment of various liver conditions.

Some medical experts refer to a liver scan as a liver-spleen scan. This term is in reference to checking the health of both organs, as the liver and spleen work closely together.

The procedure is a type of nuclear medicine. This means it uses a tiny amount of a radioactive substance called radioactive tracer. The liver tissue absorbs the radioactive tracer. The spleen and bone marrow absorb the remainder of the material.

Once the liver tissue collects the radioactive tracer, it emits gamma rays. A scanner can detect this radiation and use it to produce an image of the liver.

When the tracer collects in large amounts, it shows up as bright spots called “hot spots.” Areas that do not absorb the tracer appear less bright and are known as “cold spots.” A doctor can use this to assess the health of the liver and help diagnose various conditions.

A person may need a liver scan if they experience unexplained pain in the upper right side of their abdomen or if they had trauma in the abdomen.

As the scan can help determine the size and function of the liver, a doctor may recommend a liver scan if they suspect a person has liver disease. It may also help to confirm other test results.

Doctors may request a liver scan to help diagnose conditions and growths, such as:

Or a doctor may suggest a liver scan to monitor how a person is responding to treatment and how their liver condition is progressing.

Aside from liver scans, there are other imaging tests or scans that healthcare professionals commonly use to assess the liver, gallbladder, and biliary tract. These can include:

HIDA scan

A HIDA scan, also known as cholescintigraphy or hepatobiliary scintigraphy, is a type of radionuclide imaging. It can help doctors assess the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, and small intestine.


Ultrasounds use sound waves to create images of the liver. An abdominal ultrasound is a useful tool for detecting structural abnormalities affecting the liver. It can help detect blockages and can provide guidance for a biopsy.

CT scan

A CT scan uses radiation to take images of the liver and its blood vessels. It can detect tumors and abscesses, and certain disorders that affect the entire liver, such as fatty liver disease.


Doctors use MRIs to detect disorders such as hepatitis and fatty liver disease, and other problems that affect the liver. As with CT scans, they are also helpful in detecting tumors.

Ultrasound elastography

Healthcare professionals perform ultrasound elastography on a specialized ultrasound machine for the liver. It uses sound waves from an ultrasound probe to measure stiffness or scarring of liver tissue, known as fibrosis.

Magnetic resonance elastography

Magnetic resonance elastography is a technique that combines MRI and ultrasound technology. It uses radio waves and powerful magnets to create images of the liver and other structures. Doctors can also use it to test for fibrosis.

Real-time sonoelastography

Real-time sonoelastography is another imaging test that assesses scarring of the liver. It differs from other ultrasound-based elastography because it does not provide a numerical estimate of liver stiffness.

Acoustic radiation force impulse elastography

Acoustic radiation force impulse elastography uses short-duration sound pulses to get information about the structure and stiffness of the liver tissue.

Liver scans typically have very low associated risks. The radiation level in liver scans is not enough to cause harm. It is less than the amount used in most other types of nuclear medicine.

Some people may experience slight discomfort with the injection of the radioactive tracer. Lying on the scanning table may also be uncomfortable for some people.

In rare cases, some individuals may have an allergic reaction. As such, people sensitive to any medications, contrast agents, or latex should inform their doctor before the procedure.

Pregnant or breastfeeding individuals should consult a doctor before any radiation exposure.

People can eat and drink as they typically would before a liver scan.

Before the scan, a healthcare professional may ask the person to sign a consent form that permits them to do the procedure.

The person will need to remove any jewelry, dentures, or other metallic accessories that may interfere with the scanner’s function. They may also need to wear a hospital gown.

A person must inform the healthcare professional if they are pregnant or suspect they could be.

A person must also tell the healthcare professional if they have recently had another nuclear medicine exam or test with barium, as this may make the results of the scan less accurate.

A person can have a liver scan as an outpatient or during a stay in hospital. The procedure may vary depending on the facility’s practices and the person’s health. It generally follows this process:

  1. A healthcare professional will ask the person to remove their clothing, accessories, and jewelry. A person will receive a gown to wear for the procedure.
  2. A healthcare professional will insert an IV line on the person’s arm or hand. A radiologist will inject a small amount of radioactive tracer.
  3. The person will wait 15–30 minutes for the tracer to collect in the liver tissue. If it takes longer, a person may need to return the next day for the scan.
  4. The person will lie still on the scanning table. The radiologist will place a large camera above the person. This camera will scan for the gamma rays emitted by the tracer and record images.
  5. The healthcare professional may reposition the person during the scan to obtain different views of the surfaces of the liver.
  6. Once done, the healthcare professional will remove the IV line from the person’s arm or hand.

A person should get up slowly from the scanning table to avoid feeling lightheaded.

A healthcare professional will likely instruct the person to drink plenty of fluids and empty their bladder frequently for the next 24 hours to help flush out any remaining radioactive tracer from the body.

A healthcare professional will inspect the IV site for any discoloration, pain, or swelling. These could signal an infection or allergic reaction. If a person notices any of these symptoms when they are home, they should contact a healthcare professional.

A person may resume their regular activities unless advised otherwise. A doctor may give additional or different instructions depending on the person’s situation and condition.

A liver scan is a type of nuclear imaging that can help doctors assess liver function and diagnose various liver conditions. It can also aid in monitoring a person’s response to treatment and progression of certain conditions. The procedure is noninvasive and causes no pain. It also requires minimal preparation.