Nuclear Medicine is used to diagnose and (in some cases) treat many types of diseases of the body including heart disease, gastrointestinal, endocrine, cancer, neurological disorders and other abnormalities. Nuclear scans use small amounts of radioactive material to provide accurate images to help healthcare providers study organs and tissues and how they are working. The heart, thyroid, liver, gallbladder, kidneys, lungs, and bones are some of the most routinely imaged areas of the body.
Nuclear medicine tests are noninvasive and, with the exception of intravenous injections, are usually painless. Because nuclear medicine procedures are able to pinpoint molecular activity within the body, they offer the potential to identify disease in its earliest stages.
Nuclear Medicine imaging
Nuclear medicine specialists use safe, painless, and cost-effective techniques to image the body and treat disease. Nuclear medicine imaging is unique because it provides doctors with information about both structure and function. It is a way to gather medical information that would otherwise be unavailable, require surgery, or necessitate more expensive diagnostic tests.
How does it work?
Nuclear medicine uses very small amounts of radioactive materials to diagnose and treat disease. In imaging, the radioactive materials are detected by special types of cameras that work with computers to provide very precise pictures about the area of the body being imaged. In treatment, the radioactive materials go directly to the organ being treated. The amount of radiation in a typical nuclear imaging procedure is comparable with that received during a diagnostic x-ray, and the amount received in a typical treatment procedure is kept within safe limits.
How to prepare for a Nuclear Medicine exam:
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. You should also inform your physician and the technologist about any medications you are taking, including vitamins and herbal supplements. You should also inform them if you have any allergies and or have experienced 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. You will receive specific instructions based on the type of scan you are undergoing.
Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam, the radioactive material is either injected into the body, swallowed or inhaled. It eventually accumulates in the organ or area of the body being examined. It can take anywhere from several seconds to several days for the material to travel through your body and accumulate in the organ or area being studied. As a result, imaging may be done immediately, a few hours later, or even several days after you have received the radioactive material.
The imaging procedure
When it is time for the imaging to begin, the camera or scanner will take a series of images. The camera may rotate around you or it may stay in one position and you will be asked to change positions in between images. While the camera is taking pictures, you will need to remain still for brief periods of time. In some cases, the camera may move very close to your body. This is necessary to obtain the best quality images. If you are claustrophobic, you should inform the technologist before your exam begins.
If a probe is used, this small hand-held device will be passed over the area of the body being studied to measure levels of radioactivity. Other nuclear medicine tests measure radioactivity levels in blood, urine or breath.
The length of time for nuclear medicine procedures varies greatly, depending on the type of exam. Actual scanning time for nuclear imaging exams can take from 20 minutes to several hours and may be conducted over several days.
When the examination is completed, you may be asked to wait until the technologist checks the images in case additional images are needed. Occasionally, more images are obtained for clarification or better visualization of certain areas or structures. The need for additional images does not necessarily mean there was a problem with the exam or that something abnormal was found, and should not be a cause of concern for you.
If you had an intravenous line inserted for the procedure, it will usually be removed unless you are scheduled for an additional procedure that same day that requires an intravenous line.
What will I experience after the procedure?
Unless your physician tells you otherwise, you may resume your normal activities after your nuclear medicine scan. If any special instructions are necessary, you will be informed by a technologist, nurse or physician before you leave the nuclear medicine department.
Through the natural process of radioactive decay, the small amount of radioactive material in your body will lose its radioactivity over time. It may also pass out of your body through your urine or stool during the first few hours or days following the test. You should also drink plenty of water to help flush the radioactive material out of your body as instructed by the nuclear medicine personnel.