Nuclear medicine scans

Nuclear medicine scans

Nuclear medicine renal scans check on kidney size, position and function and for scarring of the kidneys which may be caused by repeated urinary tract infections.

What is a nuclear medicine scan?

There are 2 types of nuclear medicine renal scans. These are investigations in which pictures of the kidneys are taken with a special camera following the injection of a weak radioactive solution (radioisotope), known as DMSA or DTPA.  They give your child's doctors information about any abnormalities in the kidney, how the kidneys drain over time and how much overall work each kidney is doing.

Why is my child having a renal scan?

This depends on what the concern has been with your child. Sometimes these are done to look to see if the kidneys are draining normally, and sometimes they are done to look to see if there are any abnormalities in the tissue of the kidney. Your doctor will pick the best scan to give the best information to guide your child's care.

See the Urinary tract infections (UTI) page.

Where is this test done?

This scan takes place in your hospital's nuclear medicine department.

What happens during the test?

  • a doctor or nurse will insert an IV (or drip) into your child's vein and inject the solution
  • after the injection, the solution can take some time to travel around the blood stream to the kidneys; your child will be able to play and relax during this period. If the scan is being done in a baby, you can feed and carry them as normal
  • after a couple of hours, pictures are taken with a special camera; the pictures trace the progress of the solution through the kidneys, and with the DTPA scan, down to the bladder
  • the pictures take about 20 to 30 minutes and your child may need to lie still for that time; for this reason, younger children may need to have some medication (sedation) to help them stay calm and still

See Drips (intravenous fluid or IV) on this website.

How does it feel?

The insertion of the IV (drip) can cause discomfort. Local anaesthetic cream applied beforehand can minimise this. Apart from this, the rest of the procedure causes no discomfort.

How can I prepare my child?

  • take along comforters or any toys that will reassure your child; a dummy (pacifier) for babies (if they normally suck on one) can be very soothing
  • see other suggestions in Helping your child manage their health care treatment
  • many hospitals have play specialists, whose job it is to help explain these tests to your child. Play specialists use play to show your child what is going to happen and ways to help them cope
  • a parent will be able to stay with your child for the test and your presence can help reassure them; pregnant mothers cannot stay during the test, and in this case fathers or someone else familiar to your child can be there

Are there any after effects?

  • radiation in general is a risk; however the amount of radioisotope in the solution is based on your child's height and weight, and is so small that it poses no great risk
  • the amount of radioisotope in the solution is the smallest amount possible to get the best pictures

How do I find out the results?

The nuclear medicine specialist will review the pictures and send a written report to your doctor who will discuss the results with you. This usually takes several days.

Starship Foundation and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand acknowledge the cooperation of Starship Children's Health, Auckland District Health Board. This fact sheet has been adapted from:

Paediatric Outpatient Department. Christchurch Hospital. Canterbury District Health Board. 2002. Urine infections and reteric reflux.
Children’s Unit. Waikato District Health Board. 1997. Your child with urinary reflux.

This page last reviewed 24 June 2015.
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