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Nuclear medicine imaging involves radiotracers – small amounts of radioactive substances that a patient is injected with, inhales or swallows. Once in the body, the radiotracer migrates through the targeted area, emitting gamma ray energy. A specialized imaging camera then records the energy to capture detailed photos from inside the body.

What is General Nuclear Medicine?

Doctors may request nuclear medicine imaging to diagnose, treat or examine several conditions. For diagnosis, the radiotracers offer two distinct advantages:

  • They accurately identify molecular activity
  • Imaging assists in diagnosing potentially life-threatening diseases in the early stages, so a patient can receive timely treatment.
    Imaging may then be used to determine if a patient is responding to a treatment plan.

During this non-invasive procedure, a scan detects the radiotracers, which gather in tumors or areas experiencing inflammation and can attach to specific types of proteins.

Once the radiotracer enters the body and accumulates in the area being examined, a scan involving a special camera detects the radiotracer’s radioactive emissions to produce images and provide molecular details.

During these procedures, a gamma camera uses radiation detectors to identify the radiation from the radiotracers and assemble an image. The detectors, located in a plastic and metal box, don’t give off any radiation and sit in a round gantry. As the device records the images, the patient is positioned on a table between two gamma cameras.

To create the images, multiple technologies may be used. A PET scanner utilizes multiple detectors at the center. Single-photon emission-computed tomography (SPECT) takes detailed, 3D images based on the radioactive emissions. A probe may be used if imaging is needed over a smaller area. In all cases, a computer displays the imaging results.

Nuclear medicine is not strictly for imaging purposes. A doctor may request it for therapeutic treatment, such as radioimmunotherapy (RIT) or to treat Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that doesn’t respond to traditional chemotherapy. A small amount of radioactive material is used to target and treat certain types of cancers and other medical conditions, as it can mirror the body’s cellular activity.

Throughout all procedures, nuclear medicine offers several benefits:

  • Scans provide more detail and insight into body function than other imaging sources. This makes it essential for diagnosing and treating diseases in the early stages.
  • It’s a more cost-effective solution than exploratory surgery and may eliminate the need for surgical biopsies.
  • The information a scan provides can help when planning further radiation therapy.

Who Should Have This Procedure?

Nuclear medicine imaging allows a doctor to view the structure and operation of an organ, tissue or bone in detail. He or she can see how different fluids and substances flow through the body, how a treatment plan is working and learn more about an abnormality.

As a result, this imaging or radiation procedure may be requested for a number of reasons:

  • Examine blood flow, function and evaluate the results of revascularization.
  • Identify coronary artery disease and stenosis.
  • Assess heart damage following a cardiovascular incident.
  • Examine possible treatment options, including bypass surgery or angioplasty.
  • Determine the source of a transplant rejection.
  • See how the heart functions following chemotherapy.
  • Evaluate the lungs for blood and air flow problems.
  • Examine differential lung function – key for lung reduction or transplant surgery.
  • Examine the bones for fractures, arthritis, infection, tumors and metastatic bone disease.
  • Identify ideal locations for a biopsy.
  • Identify brain abnormalities – a symptom for seizures, memory loss and blood flow issues.
  • Examine potential early onset neurological and movement disorders, including for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
  • Examine the gallbladder for inflammation, abnormal functioning or post-operative complications.
  • Measure thyroid function to diagnose hyperthyroidism, hyperparathyroidism and related blood disorders.
  • Assess spinal fluid flow and potential leaks.
  • Examine esophageal abnormalities in children.
  • Test and evaluate for congenital heart disease.

The procedure can also help with various cancer-related procedures, including where the diseases has spread in the body and developing an effective treatment plan.

What You Can Expect

Nuclear medical imaging and procedures are performed in outpatient and hospital settings. As a patient, inform your doctor:

  • Of any allergies that occurred during a past nuclear medical exam.
  • If there’s a possibility you are pregnant or if you are breastfeeding.
  • Of any recent illnesses, medical conditions and medications you take. This includes any vitamins and supplements that may interfere with radioactive iodine procedures.
  • If you are claustrophobic.

Depending on the procedure, your doctor may restrict what you eat and drink before the exam. Arrive in loose clothing and remove anything metal, including jewelry, hearing aids, piercings and dental fixtures.

During a typical nuclear medicine imaging procedure:

  • You will lie on an examination table, where the nurse or technologist will insert an IV to inject the radiotracer, although it may be given as a liquid or gas.
  • As the scan begins, a camera rotates around you or stays in a fixed position to take a series of images. The radiologist may ask you to change positions or sit still.
  • If a probe is used, the technologist will hover it close to the area being assessed.
  • After the scan, the technologist will review the images and send the results to your doctor.

Following the procedure, most patients can resume their normal day-to-day activities, unless you are given specific recovery instructions.
Has your doctor recommended nuclear medicine imaging? Contact us to make an appointment today!