What is nuclear medicine?

Nuclear medicine is a type of imaging that utilizes radioactive material. While X-rays and CT scans gather images by passing radiation from an outside source into the body, nuclear medicine puts the radiation into the body, where it gives off energy that is visible with a specialized camera. The radiation used is a very low dose, and this type of testing has proven to be safe, although certain precautions are recommended.

Depending on the area of the body being studied, the material may be injected, swallowed, or inhaled. The images are taken with a gamma camera, or by positron emission photography, more commonly known as a PET scan. The gamma camera or PET scan is used in combination with a computer that can measure the amount of radioactive material to create detailed images that give information about the function of organs and tissues.

Some common uses of nuclear medicine include:

  • analyzing kidney function
  • visualizing heart blood flow and function (such as a nuclear perfusion scan)
  • scanning lungs for respiratory and blood flow problems
  • identifying inflammation in the gallbladder
  • determining the presence or spread of cancer in various parts of the body
  • measuring thyroid function
  • investigating abnormalities in the brain, such as seizures and memory loss, and abnormalities in blood flow.

How to prepare

  • Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing to your exam. You may be given a gown to wear during the procedure.
  • Metal objects can affect the images. Jewelry and other metal accessories such a glasses and hairpins will need to be removed before the exam.
  • Be sure your doctor is aware of any recent illnesses or other medical conditions; if you have a history of heart disease, asthma, diabetes, kidney disease or thyroid problems; or if there is a possibility that you may be pregnant.
  • Depending on the type of exam, your doctor may give you more specific instructions.

What to expect

Depending on the area of the body being studied, the radioactive material will either be injected, swallowed, or inhaled. If material in given intravenously, you may feel a cool sensation running up your arm at the time of the injection. The material is tasteless if swallowed and if inhaled, it should feel no different than breathing air.

The material needs to accumulate in the area being studied, so the exam may take place shortly after the radioactive material is administered, or it may take several hours, or even several days.

When it is time for the exam, you will be asked to lie on an exam table. If your exam is not a PET scan, a gamma camera will be used. The camera will be located either over the table at the end of an adjustable arm, or it will be under the exam table. During the exam, the camera will move around you, and at times it will be positioned very close to your body. You will need to be very still during the scanning. The scanning generally takes about 20 minutes, but for some exams you will need several scans spaced over a period of several hours, or even several days, to compare images and gather more information about the function of certain systems.

After your exam

When the scanning is complete, the technologist will review the images to verify that they are of high enough quality for accurate interpretation. If another scan is needed, an appointment will be set for you to come back. Once all scanning is complete, the images will be reviewed by your doctor, and you will hear back about the results within several days.

Generally no recovery time is needed after a nuclear medicine exam, and you will be able to drive yourself home, or even back to work immediately after your appointment.

After a nuclear medicine procedure, a small amount of radioactive material will remain in your body. Through the natural process of radioactive decay, it will lose its radioactivity over time. More than likely, it will pass out of your body through your urine or stool during the first few hours or days following the test. You may be instructed to take special precautions after urinating, including flushing the toilet twice and washing your hands especially thoroughly. You should also drink plenty of water to help flush the radioactive material out of your body. A nuclear medicine clinician will go over this information with you in detail.

Risks and side effects

Nuclear medicine does utilize low doses of radiation, however, this type of testing has been done for many years, and there are no known long-term adverse effects from such low-dose exposure.

Women who are pregnant or nursing should notify their doctor before undergoing this test.

Types of tests offered

Listed below are some of the types of nuclear medicine tests and treatments offered at Community Hospital.

Nuclear Bone Scan

Nuclear Perfusion Stress Test