A gallium scan of the body is a nuclear medicine test that is conducted using a camera that detects gallium, a form of radionuclide, or radioactive chemical substance.
Most gallium scans are ordered to detect cancerous tumors, infections, or areas of inflammation in the body. Gallium is known to accumulate in inflamed, infected, or cancerous tissues. The scans are used to determine whether a patient with an unexplained fever has an infection and the site of the infection, if present. Gallium scans also may be used to evaluate cancer following chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
The patient will usually be asked to come to the testing facility 24-48 hours before the procedure to receive the injection of gallium. Sometimes, the injection will be given only four to six hours before the study or as long as 72 hours before the procedure. The timeframe is based on the area or organs of the body being studied.
For the study itself, the patient lies very still for approximately 30-60 minutes. A camera is moved across the patient's body to detect and capture images of concentrations of the gallium. The camera picks up signals from any accumulated areas of the radionuclide. In most cases, the patient is lying down throughout the procedure. Back (posterior) and front (anterior) views will usually be taken, and sometimes a side (lateral) view is used. The camera may occasionally touch the patient's skin, but will not cause any discomfort. A clicking noise may be heard throughout the procedure; this is only the sound of the scanner registering radiation.
The intravenous injection of gallium is done in a separate appointment prior to the procedure. Generally, no special dietary requirements are necessary. Sometimes the physician will ask that the patient have light or clear meals within a day or less of the procedure. Many patients will be given laxatives or an enema prior to the scan to eliminate any residual gallium from the bowels.
There is generally no aftercare required following a gallium scan. However, women who are breastfeeding who have a scan will be cautioned against breastfeeding for four weeks following the exam.
There is a minimal risk of exposure to radiation from the gallium injection, but the exposure from one gallium scan is generally less than exposure from x rays.
A radiologist trained in nuclear medicine or a nuclear medicine specialist will interpret the exam results and compare them to other diagnostic tests. It is normal for gallium to accumulate in the liver, spleen, bones, breast tissue, and large bowel.
An abnormal concentration of gallium in areas other than those where it normally concentrates may indicate the presence of disease. Concentrations may be due to inflammation, infection, or the presence of tumor tissue. Often, additional tests are required to determine if the tumors are malignant (cancerous) or benign.
Even though gallium normally concentrates in organs such as the liver or spleen, abnormally high concentrations will suggest certain diseases and conditions. For example, Hodgkin's or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma may be diagnosed or staged if there is abnormal gallium activity in the lymph nodes. After a patient receives cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, a gallium scan may help to find new or recurring tumors or to record regression of a treated tumor. Physicians can narrow causes of liver problems by noting abnormal gallium activity in the liver. Gallium scans also may be used to diagnose lung diseases or a disease called sarcoidosis, in the chest.
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American Cancer Society. 1599 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta, GA30329. (404) 320-3333. <http://www.cancer.org>.
American College of Nuclear Medicine. PO Box 175, Landisville, PA 31906. (717) 898-6006.
American Liver Foundation. 1425 Pompton Avenue, Cedar Grove NJ 07009. (800) GO LIVER (465-4837). <http://www.liverfoundation.org>
Society of Nuclear Medicine. 1850 Samuel Morse Drive, Reston, VA 10016. (703) 708-9000. <http://www.snm.org>.
"A Patient's Guide to Nuclear Medicine." University of Iowa Virtual Hospital. <http://www.vh.org/Patients/IHB/Rad/NucMed/PatGuideNucMed/PatGuideNucMed.html>. 2 July 2001.
Teresa G. Norris
—Not cancerous. Benign tumors are not considered immediate threats, but may still require some form of treatment.
—A form of radionuclide that is used to help locate tumors and inflammation (specifically referred to as GA67 citrate).
—This term, usually used to describe a tumor, means cancerous, becoming worse and possibly growing.
—A subspecialty of radiology used to show the function and anatomy of body organs. Very small amounts of radioactive substances, or tracers, are detected with a special camera as they accumulate in certain organs and tissues.
—A chemical substance, called an isotope, that exhibits radioactivity. A gamma camera, used in nuclear medicine procedures, will pick up the radioactive signals as the substance gathers in an organ or tissue. They are sometimes referred to as tracers.