Lymphoscintigraphy is a type of nuclear medicine imaging test. Healthcare providers use it to locate lymph nodes to which cancer cells may have spread. You might need a lymphoscintigraphy procedure if your provider suspects you have skin or breast cancer.


What is lymphoscintigraphy?

A lymphoscintigraphy is a type of nuclear medicine imaging test. Healthcare providers use it to take detailed pictures of your lymphatic system. It helps them locate your lymph nodes, see the pattern of lymph node drainage and determine if you have certain diseases.

Another name for lymphoscintigraphy is lymph node mapping.

When is lymphoscintigraphy done?

Healthcare providers commonly use lymphoscintigraphy to:

  • Diagnose and stage certain types of cancer. Providers most commonly use lymphoscintigraphy to diagnose breast cancer and melanoma (an aggressive type of skin cancer).
  • Locate sentinel nodes for surgical removal. A sentinel node is the first lymph node to which cancer cells spread from a primary tumor. It’s possible to have more than one sentinel node.
  • Diagnose lymph system diseases. This includes conditions like lymphangiomatosis, lymphedema and chylothorax.
  • Monitor the progress of treatment. In addition to diagnosing conditions, lymphoscintigraphy can help providers track the success of your treatment.

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Test Details

How does lymphoscintigraphy work?

Lymphoscintigraphy is a type of nuclear imaging test. That means your provider will use a very small amount of radioactive substance (radiotracer). When injected under the skin, radiotracers “gather” in tumors or other areas of concern. Radiotracers give off gamma rays that special cameras (gamma cameras) can detect. The camera sends this data to a computer that creates images inside your body. This allows healthcare providers to find disease in its earliest stages — before other imaging tests can detect it.

Lymphoscintigraphy injections normally occur the day of your procedure, but sometimes, they can be done the day before. Injections are normally under the skin near the area of interest, but it depends on what specific type of test you need. Your provider will let you know what to expect.

How do I prepare for my lymphoscintigraphy procedure?

Your healthcare provider will tell you how to prepare for your lymphoscintigraphy. But in general, you should:

  • Leave jewelry at home, as metal may interfere with the imaging test.
  • Tell your provider if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding (chestfeeding).
  • Bring an updated list of any medications, vitamins or supplements you’re taking.

What happens during lymphoscintigraphy?

Lymphoscintigraphy is usually an outpatient procedure but it’s sometimes scheduled on the day of your surgery.

Once you arrive for your appointment, a healthcare provider will walk you back to an exam room and ask you to lie down on a table. (You might be able to wear your own clothing during the procedure. But your provider may ask you to change into a gown before they begin.)

Next, they’ll administer the radiotracer by way of a very small needle just beneath the skin.

After the radiotracer is administered:

  • The gamma camera takes a series of pictures. Depending on the area of your body that needs imaging, the camera might stay still or rotate around you.
  • The technologist may ask you to change positions between images.
  • You’ll need to remain very still for short periods while the gamma camera takes pictures.
  • The technologist will check to make sure they have all the images they need, then you’ll be free to go.

What to expect after lymphoscintigraphy

Unless your healthcare provider tells you otherwise, you’ll be able to resume normal activities immediately. The radiotracer will leave your body when you pee and poop over the next couple of days. Drink plenty of water to help this process along.

What are the risks of lymphoscintigraphy?

Lymphoscintigraphy might not be right for you if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have:

Lymphoscintigraphy side effects

Lymphoscintigraphy side effects are rare, but some people may develop an allergic reaction to the radiotracer.


Results and Follow-Up

When should I know the results of my lymphoscintigraphy procedure?

You should know the results of your lymphoscintigraphy within one week. The technologist who took the images will send them to a radiologist for review. The radiologist will then contact the provider who originally requested the test. This process can take a few days, but your provider will call you as soon as they receive your results.

If my results are abnormal, what are the next steps?

It depends on the condition your provider tests for. But generally, if they’re looking for cancer, they’ll do a sentinel node biopsy.

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about what your results mean and discuss appropriate treatment options.

Additional Common Questions

Does lymphoscintigraphy hurt?

The test itself shouldn’t hurt. If you need an injection, you might feel a slight sting. But you shouldn’t have pain during the procedure.


Does lymphoscintigraphy use radiation?

Yes, lymphoscintigraphy uses small amounts of radioactive substances (radiotracers) to locate your lymph nodes and see how well your lymphatic system works. Radiotracers typically flush out of your system in a day or two.

How long does a lymphoscintigraphy take?

It depends on the reason for the test and the size of the affected area. For some people, lymphoscintigraphy may only take about 30 minutes. For others, it can take a few hours. Your provider can let you know what to expect on the day of your appointment.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

No matter what health condition you might have, early detection is key. Lymphoscintigraphy helps providers find certain cancers and lymphatic diseases before other types of testing can detect them. This gives you the best chance of successful treatment. If you have questions about lymphoscintigraphy or appropriate next steps, reach out to your healthcare provider.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/17/2023.

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