Adrenal glands

Adrenal gland scanning 101: adrenal medical imaging

The adrenal glands are small, triangle-shaped organs that sit on top of each kidney. They are responsible for producing different hormones that regulate your immune system, metabolism, blood pressure, and stress response.

Research has shown adrenal abnormalities are rare, affecting only six in 1 million people. However, if there is a sign of adrenal insufficiency, quick intervention is imperative. An adrenal scan can give doctors the insight they need to assess the adrenal glands' functionality.

Why do I need an adrenal scan?

The adrenal glands are hormone-producing powerhouses. Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers; they instruct your body to do something something. For example, if your body experiences extreme stress, it releases the hormone cortisol, which primes your body’s “fight or flight” response.

Cortisol is one of many hormones created by the adrenal glands. Others include:

  • Aldosterone.
  • DHEA and androgenic steroids
  • Epinephrine (adrenaline)
  • Norepinephrine (noradrenaline)

The most common adrenal gland disorders are adrenal insufficiency and Addison's disease. In these disorders, symptoms tend to develop slowly, but can include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weight loss and decreased appetite
  • Extremely low blood sugar
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Weakness
  • Depression

Your doctor may order an adrenal scan if you are experiencing a combination of these symptoms. Adrenal gland scans allow your doctor to better understand whether adrenal gland dysfunction or disease is causing your symptoms.

What does an adrenal scan show?

An adrenal gland scan produces images of your adrenal glands and the surrounding soft tissues. Because the adrenal glands are situated on top of the kidneys, the scan will also show parts of the upper kidneys, lower lungs, and ribs.

Here are some things that can show up on adrenal gland scans:

  • Abnormal growths
  • Tumors
  • Inflammation
  • Tissue degeneration

Some scans can also indicate whether a growth on the adrenal gland is cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign).


Common causes of adrenal pain

Because the primary responsibility of the adrenal gland is to produce chemicals that cause other cells in the body to act a certain way, adrenal disorders tend to manifest as symptoms other than pain.

If you experience sudden pain in your lower abdomen, combined with vomiting, nausea, confusion, or low blood sugar, seek medical attention immediately. This is a sign of adrenal crisis caused by severely depleted cortisol.

Common adrenal gland diagnoses

Common adrenal gland disorders include:

  • Tumors
  • Addison’s disease
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Adrenal insufficiency



Types of scans for adrenal glands

Your doctor will advise on the best scan for you to receive based on your symptoms and clinical presentation.

CT scans for adrenal glands

CT (computerized tomography) scans use focused X-ray beams to take incremental pictures of the adrenal glands across different angles. This allows the radiologist (a doctor specialized in reading scans) to see a full, 3D image of the adrenal glands.

An adrenal gland CT scan can highlight tissues, muscles, and bones. This lets a radiologist hone in on any abnormalities or disease processes that could be causing symptoms of adrenal disorders.

MRI for adrenal glands

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan is similar to a CT scan and creates detailed images of the adrenal glands, soft tissues, bones, and muscles. However, an MRI uses a magnetic field, radio waves, and a computer to generate images of the adrenal glands, rather than ionizing radiation.

MRIs are more sensitive than CT scans and are often able to differentiate between cancerous and noncancerous tissue types. If an abnormal adrenal growth is detected on a different type of imaging scan, or your doctor suspects there may be a tumor, they might order an adrenal gland MRI to make a more definitive diagnosis.

Ultrasounds for adrenal glands

An adrenal gland ultrasound uses sound waves and records the sounds as they travel back to create images of the adrenal glands. These images provide detailed impressions of nearby structures and tend to pick up abnormal growths in the adrenal glands' soft tissues.

How much does an adrenal scan cost?

The cost of an adrenal scan depends on a few factors:

  • The type of scan being performed
  • The scanning center
  • Your insurance coverage (including deductible, copay, network status, etc.)

Generally, ultrasounds are less expensive than other medical imaging scans.

How long does an adrenal scan take?

The length of an adrenal scan varies based on the type of scan being performed, but, generally speaking, you can expect an adrenal scan to take between 30 and 45 minutes. In some cases it may take longer.

Find an adrenal medical imaging center near me

If you need an adrenal scan, scan.com’s scan search tool is a quick and easy way to find an imaging center near you.

Resources:

  1. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/adrenal-glands
  2. https://medlineplus.gov/hormones.html 3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279083/
  3. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16717-adrenal-disorders
  4. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/how-diagnosed.html
  5. https://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/adrenal-cancer/x-ray-tests-adrenal-gland-tumors
  6. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/programs/imaging-center/exams/mri/adrenal-glands.html

FAQs

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An adrenal scan is a non-invasive procedure and therefore isn’t painful. However, you may need to lay still for an extended period, which can be uncomfortable for some patients.

Turnaround times on scan results vary based on a number of factors, including the scan center, whether the radiologist is on-site or off-site, and the radiologist's work hours. In most cases, you can expect results in 5 to 7 days.

Yes, an adrenal scan is sensitive enough to detect cancerous growths. An MRI can even distinguish if a tumor is cancerous or benign without the need for a biopsy.