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.