Kidney Nuclear Medicine Scan

Kidney Nuclear Medicine Scan



A kidney nuclear medicine scan, or study, is a simple outpatient test that involves administering small amounts of radioactive substances, called tracers, into the body and then imaging the kidneys and bladder with a special camera. The images obtained can help in the diagnosis and treatment of certain kidney diseases.


While many tests, such as x rays, ultrasound exams, or computed tomography scans (CT scans), can reveal the structure of the kidneys (its anatomy), the kidney nuclear medicine scan is unique in that it reveals how the kidneys are functioning. This is valuable information in helping a doctor make a diagnosis. Therefore, the kidney nuclear medicine scan is performed primarily to see how well the kidneys are working and, at the same time, they can identify some of the various structures that make up the kidney.


If a patient is pregnant, it is generally recommended that she not have a kidney nuclear medicine scan. The unborn baby is more sensitive to radiation than an adult. If a woman thinks she might be pregnant, she should inform her doctor of this too.
Women who are breastfeeding should also inform their doctor. The doctor may recommend the woman stop breastfeeding for a day or two after a kidney nuclear medicine scan, depending on the particular tracer that was used since the tracer can accumulate in breast milk.


Nuclear medicine is a branch of radiology that uses radioactive materials to diagnose or treat various diseases. These radioactive materials (tracers) may also be called radiopharmaceuticals, and they accumulate (collect) in specific organs in the body. Radiopharmaceuticals are able to yield valuable information about the particular organ being studied.
Whether outside the body or inside the body, tracers emit radioactive signals, called gamma rays, which can be collected and counted by a special device, called a gamma camera. The images of the kidney that the camera produces are called renal scans.
The kidney nuclear medicine scan can be performed on an outpatient basis, usually by a nuclear medicine technologist. The technologist helps prepare the patient for the exam by positioning him or her on an exam table or cart in the imaging area. The patient's position is usually flat on the back. The patient must lie still during imaging to prevent blurring of the images that will be taken. The technologist positions the camera as close to the kidney (or kidneys) as possible to obtain the best images.
In the next step of the procedure, the technologist injects the radiopharmaceutical into the patient. This may be done with one single injection or through an intravenous (IV) line. Immediately after the tracer is injected, imaging begins. It is important to obtain images right away because the tracer's radioactivity begins to diminish (decay). The time required for one-half of the tracer's activity to decay is called the tracer's half-life (T 1/2). The half-life is unique to each radiopharmaceutical. Also, it is important to see the kidney in its immediate state.
Serial pictures are taken with the gamma camera and may be seen on a computer or TV-like screen. The camera doesn't emit radiation, it only records it. The images then are stored on film.
A kidney nuclear medicine scan ranges from 45 minutes to three hours in length, depending on the goals of the test. But the test typically takes about an hour to an hour-and-a-half.
Once the images and curves are obtained, the nuclear medicine physician or radiologist analyzes, or reads, them. Various information can be provided to the doctor through these, depending on the test that was performed. A variety of kidney nuclear medicine studies are available for a doctor to help in making diagnoses. It is important to understand that kidney nuclear medicine scans are good at identifying when there is an abnormality, but they do not always identify the specific problem. They are very useful in providing information about how the various parts of the kidneys function, which, in turn, can assist in making a diagnosis.
Studies may be performed to determine the rate at which the kidney's are filtering a patient's blood. These studies use a radiopharmaceutical, called Technetium DTPA (Tc 99m DTPA). This radiopharmaceutical also can identify obstruction (blockage) in the collecting system. To study how well the tubules and ducts of the kidney are functioning, the radiopharmaceutical Technetium MAG3 is used. Studying tubular function is a good indicator of overall renal function. In many renal diseases, one of the first things that disappears or diminishes is the tubular function.
Candidates for a kidney nuclear medicine scan are patients who have:
  • Renal failure or chronic renal failure
  • Obstruction in their urine collection systems
  • Renal artery stenosis
  • A kidney transplant.


No preparation is necessary for a kidney nuclear medicine scan. The doctor may ask the patient to refrain from certain medications, however, before the scan if the medications might interfere with the test. For example, if a scan is being performed to study renal artery stenosis, the patient may have to refrain from taking medications for hypertension.


Patients can resume their normal daily activities immediately after the test. Most tracers are passed naturally from the body, though drinking fluids after a kidney nuclear medicine scan can help flush the tracer into the urine and out of the body more quickly.


Nuclear medicine procedures are very safe. Unlike some of the dyes that may be used in x-ray studies, radioactive tracers rarely cause side effects. There are no long-lasting effects of the tracers themselves, because they have no functional effects on the body's tissues.

Normal results

The test reveals normal kidney function for age and medical situation.

Key terms

Intravenous pyelogram (IVP) — X ray technique using dye to image the kidneys, ureters, and bladder.
Renal — Having to do with the kidneys.
Renal artery stenosis — Narrowing or constriction of the artery that supplies the kidney with blood.

Abnormal results

The test reveals a change in function that may be attributable to a disease process, such as obstruction or a malfunctioning kidney. If the test is abnormal, the patient may be recalled another day for a repeat study, performed differently, to narrow the list of causes.



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Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.