Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical imaging that uses small amounts of radioactive material called radiopharmaceuticals or radiotracers to diagnose or treat a variety of diseases, including many types of cancers, heart disease and certain other abnormalities within the body. Nuclear medicine or radionuclide imaging procedures are noninvasive and usually painless.
Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam you are undergoing, the radiotracer is either injected into a vein, swallowed or inhaled as a gas and eventually accumulates in the organ or area of your body being examined, where it gives off energy in the form of gamma rays. This energy is detected by a device called a gamma camera.
The gamma camera works with a computer to measure the amount of radiotracer absorbed by your body and to produce special pictures offering details on both the structure and function of organs and tissues.
Why is this procedure conducted?
Physicians use radionuclide imaging procedures to visualize the structure and function of an organ, tissue, bone or system of the body.
Nuclear imaging scans are performed to:
- Analyze kidney function
- Visualize heart blood flow and function (such as a myocardial perfusion scan)
- Scan lungs for respiratory and blood flow problems
- Identify inflammation in the gallbladder
- Evaluate bones for fractures, infection, arthritis and tumors
- Determine the presence or spread of cancer in various parts of the body
- Identify bleeding into the bowel
- Locate the presence of infection
- Measure thyroid function to detect an overactive or underactive thyroid
You may be asked to wear a gown during the exam or you may be allowed to wear your own clothing. Women should always inform their physician or technologist if there is any possibility that they are pregnant or if they are breastfeeding their baby.
You should inform your physician and the technologist performing your exam of any medications you are taking, including vitamins and herbal supplements. You should also inform them if you have any allergies and about recent illnesses or other medical conditions.
Jewelry and other metallic accessories should be left at home if possible, or removed prior to the exam because they may interfere with the procedure.
The preparation will vary depending on the area being imaged. Some exams require you have nothing to eat after midnight on exam day, and some exams require that you not have pain medication for a period prior to your exam time. You will receive specific instructions based on the type of scan you are undergoing.
In most cases, the radioisotope will be given through an IV catheter, so you can expect an IV insertion upon your arrival.
During the Exam
Nuclear medicine exam times can range from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
The radioisotope is injected upon your arrival and imaging is performed immediately following the injection, or your will be instructed to return at a later time for imagine. The nuclear medicine technologist will give you a specific return time, if needed.
During the exam, you will lie on a table and the part of your body to be scanned will be positioned under the camera. The nuclear medicine technologist will assist in making you as comfortable as possible. The camera will periodically move throughout the exam. The technologist will be in the room near you and will be able to talk with you during the exam.
Once the exam is completed, the images will be studied and interpreted by a radiologist. A report will be available for your physician.