RBC nuclear scan

What is RBC Nuclear Scan?

RBC (red blood cell) nuclear scan is a specialized Nuclear Medicine imaging technique used to measure the number of red blood cells in the body and evaluate their function and distribution. It is used to diagnosis conditions including sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, and other genetic disorders. It can also be used to detect problems in the heart and other vascular system, and kidney and liver disease.

Preparation for an RBC Nuclear Scan

Your doctor will provide you with instructions before your nuclear scan. Many times, the doctor will ask you to fast and avoid caffeine for up to 24 hours prior to the procedure. You should at least avoid caffeine four to six hours prior to the scan. Other preparation may include blood tests, chest X-rays, and other tests depending on the purpose of the scan. Your doctor will also advise you on how to dress for the procedure, usually wearing comfortable clothes.


During the procedure, a technologist injects a radioactive tracer substance called a radiotracer into one of your veins. A special camera or scanner then takes pictures of the tracer as it is distributed throughout the body. The camera or scanner can detect the gamma radiation which is emitted from the tracer. The radioactive tracer is usually a form of chromium or manganese. The images are then analyzed and interpreted by a radiologist. The entire procedure usually takes about an hour.

Types of RBC Nuclear Scan

  • Chromic RBC nuclear scan – uses chromium-51 to measure the amount and distribution of red blood cells
  • Manganese-Enhanced RBC nuclear scan – uses manganese-52 to measure the shape, size, and distribution of red blood cells

Risks and Side Effects

RBC nuclear scans are generally safe and have no long-term side effects. In rare cases, the radiation exposure from the tracer may cause eye problems, or thyroid dysfunction. In addition, the radiation exposure may increase the risk of cancer; however, the risk is minimal and outweighed by the potential benefits of the scan.

Why is an RBC Nuclear Scan Performed?

RBC nuclear scans are often performed to diagnose sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, and other red blood cell-related disorders. These types of scans can also help detect problems in the heart and other cardiovascular and renal systems. In some cases, an RBC nuclear scan can be used to identify malignant tumors and other malignancies.

When is an RBC Nuclear Scan Recommended?

Your doctor may recommend an RBC nuclear scan if you have symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and frequent infections, which could point to an underlying red blood cell-related disorder. RBC scans are also useful for monitoring patients with sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, and other disorders.