Gastric Emptying Scan

Written by David Heitz | Published on January 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on January 10, 2014

What Is a Gastric Emptying Scan

A gastric emptying scan, also known as a gastric emptying study or test, is an exam that uses nuclear medicine to determine how fast food leaves the stomach. It differs from a standard X-ray in that it uses a small amount of radioactive material to emit photon energy. The energy is detected by a gamma camera, which creates a computerized image.

What Is a Gastric Emptying Scan Used For?

Gastric emptying scans are often used to diagnose gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach's muscles don't work properly. This results in a delay in sending food to the small intestine.

Doctors order the scans for adults and children who frequently vomit, feel bloated after eating, or complain of abdominal pain. Weight loss or changes in sugar levels are also symptoms of gastroparesis.

Where and How Will the Test Be Administered?

Gastric emptying scans take place at hospitals. They are performed by professionals trained in nuclear medicine or radiology.

Before the scan, the patient will eat a meal. This is usually scrambled eggs treated with a small amount of tasteless radioactive material. For children who refuse to eat, the radioactive substance can be administered through a nasal feeding tube or gastrostomy tube. Infants and toddlers are usually given formula, milk, or juice. The radioactive substance allows the camera to follow the food through the digestive process.

The patient will lie on a table while the camera takes pictures. Over the course of three to five hours, four to six scans lasting about a minute each will be taken. In the case of infants and toddlers, the camera takes continuous images for about an hour. Some hospitals use a gamma camera that takes pictures while the patient is standing.

It is important to remain still during the scan.

What Are the Risks of a Gastric Emptying Scan?

A person will experience a small amount of radiation exposure from the material put in the food eaten before the scan. This is not considered dangerous, unless a woman is breast-feeding, pregnant, or planning to become pregnant. Anyone in these circumstances should tell her doctor before having a gastric emptying scan.

How Does a Patient Prepare for Gastric Emptying Scan?

Other than the radioactive meal before the scan, patients should not eat or drink anything for four to six hours before the test.

It's a good idea to bring books to read or a personal listening device to pass the time. A parent might want to bring their child's favorite toy or pacifier.

Be sure to let the technician know if you are taking any medications or have any health complications, such as diabetes.

What Is the Outlook After Gastric Emptying Scan?

The doctor who ordered the test usually calls with results within a few days.

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