A pulmonary ventilation/perfusion scan is actually two tests. They may be done separately or together.
During the perfusion scan, a health care provider injects radioactive albumin into your vein. You are placed on a movable table that is under the arm of a scanner. The machine scans your lungs as blood flows through them to find the location of the radioactive particles.
During the ventilation scan, you breathe in radioactive gas through a mask while you are sitting or lying on a table under the scanner arm.
How to Prepare for the Test
You do not need to stop eating (fast), eat a special diet, or take any medications before the test.
A chest x-ray is usually done before or after a ventilation and perfusion scan.
You wear a hospital gown or comfortable clothing that does not have metal fasteners.
How the Test will Feel
The table may feel hard or cold. You may feel a sharp prick when the IV is placed in the vein in your arm for the perfusion part of the scan.
The mask used during the ventilation scan may make you feel nervous about being in a small space (claustrophobia). You must lie still during the scan.
The radioisotope injection usually does not cause discomfort.
Why the Test is Performed
The ventilation scan is used to see how well air moves and blood flows through the lungs. The perfusion scan measures the blood supply through the lungs.
A ventilation and perfusion scan is most often done to detect a pulmonary embolus (blood clot in the lungs). It is also used to:
Detect abnormal circulation (shunts) in the blood vessels of the lungs (pulmonary vessels)
Test regional (different lung areas) lung function in people with advanced pulmonary disease, such as COPD
The health care provider should take a ventilation and perfusion scan and then evaluate it with a chest x-ray. All parts of both lungs should take up the radioisotope evenly.
What Abnormal Results Mean
If the lungs take up lower than normal amounts of radioisotope during a ventilation or perfusion scan, it may be due to any of the following:
Risks are about the same as for x-rays (radiation) and needle pricks.
No radiation is released from the scanner. Instead, it detects radiation and converts it into an image.
There is a small exposure to radiation from the radioisotope. The radioisotopes used during scans are short-lived. All of the radiation leaves the body in a few days. However, as with any radiation exposure, caution is advised for pregnant or breast-feeding women.
There is a slight risk for infection or bleeding at the site where the needle is inserted. The risk with perfusion scan is the same as with inserting an intravenous needle for any other purpose.
Stark P. Imaging in pulmonary disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 84.
Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.