Thyroid Nuclear Medicine Scan

Thyroid Nuclear Medicine Scan



A thyroid nuclear medicine scan is a diagnostic procedure to evaluate the thyroid gland, which is located in the front of the neck and controls the body's metabolism. A radioactive substance that concentrates in the thyroid is taken orally or injected into a vein (intravenously), or both. A special camera is used to take an image of the distribution of the radioactive substance in and around the thyroid gland. This is interpreted to evaluate thyroid function and to diagnose abnormalities.


A thyroid scan may be ordered by a physician when the gland becomes abnormally large, especially if the enlargement is greater on one side, or when hard lumps (nodules) are felt. The scan can be helpful in determining whether the enlargement is caused by a diffuse increase in the total amount of thyroid tissue or by a nodule or nodules.
When other laboratory studies show an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) or an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), a radioactive iodine uptake scan is often used to confirm the diagnosis. It is frequently done along with a thyroid scan.


Women who are pregnant should not have this test.


This test is performed in a radiology facility, either in an outpatient x ray center or a hospital department. Most often, the patient is given the radioactive substance in the form of a tasteless liquid or capsule. It may be injected into a vein (intravenously) in some instances. Images will be taken at a specified amount of time after this, depending on the radioisotope used. Most often, scanning is done 24 hours later, if the radioisotope is given orally. If it is given intravenously, the scan is performed approximately 20 minutes later.
For a thyroid scan, the patient is positioned lying down on his or her back, with the head tilted back. The radionuclide scanner, also called a gamma camera, is positioned above the thyroid area as it scans. This takes 30-60 minutes.
The uptake study may be done with the patient sitting upright in a chair or lying down. The procedure is otherwise the same as described for the thyroid scan. It takes approximately 15 minutes. There is no discomfort involved with either study.
A thyroid scan may also be referred to as a thyroid scintiscan. The name of the radioactive substance used may be incorporated and the study called a technetium thyroid scan or an iodine thyroid scan. The radioactive iodine uptake scan may be called by its initials, an RAIU test, or an iodine uptake test.


Certain medications can interfere with iodine uptake. These include certain cough medicines, some oral contraceptives, and thyroid medications. The patient is usually instructed to stop taking these medicines for a period of time before the test. This period may range from several days up to three to four weeks, depending on the amount of time the medicine takes to clear from the body.
Other nuclear medicine scans and x ray studies using contrast material performed within the past 60 days may affect this test. Therefore, patients should tell their doctors if they have had either of these types of studies before the thyroid scan is begun, to avoid inaccurate results.
Some institutions prefer that the patient have nothing to eat or drink after midnight on the day before the radioactive liquid or capsule is to be taken. A normal diet can usually be resumed two hours after the radioisotope is taken. Dentures, jewelry, and other metallic objects must be removed before the scanning is performed. No other physical preparation is needed.
The patient should understand that there is no danger of radiation exposure to themselves or others. Only very small amounts of radioisotope are used. The total amount of radiation absorbed is often less than the dose received from ordinary x rays. The scanner or camera does not emit any radiation, but detects and records it from the patient.


No isolation or special precautions are needed after a thyroid scan. The patient should check with his or her physician about restarting any medications that were stopped before the scan.


There are no risks with this procedure.

Normal results

A normal scan will show a thyroid of normal size, shape, and position. The amount of radionuclide uptake by the thyroid will be normal according to established laboratory figures. There will be no areas where radionuclide uptake is increased or decreased.

Abnormal results

An area of increased radionuclide uptake may be called a hot nodule or "hot spot." This means that a benign growth is overactive. Despite the name, hot nodules are unlikely to be caused by cancer.
An area of decreased radionuclide uptake may be called a cold nodule or "cold spot." This indicates that this area of the thyroid gland is underactive. A variety of conditions, including cysts, nonfunctioning benign growths, localized inflammation, or cancer may produce a cold spot.
A thyroid nuclear medicine scan is rarely sufficient to establish a clear diagnosis. Frequently, the information revealed will need to be combined with data from other studies to determine the problem.



Goldsmith, Stanley J. "Endocrine System." In Nuclear Medicine, edited by Donald R. Bernier, et al. St. Louis: Mosby, 1997.

Key terms

Radioisotope — A radioactive or radiation-emitting form of an element.
Radionuclide — A substance that emits radiation as it disintegrates.
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