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Overview

Nuclear medicine involves noninvasive and usually painless medical tests that help physicians diagnose medical conditions.

In a nuclear medicine exam, a “radiotracer” is injected into a vein, swallowed or inhaled as a gas. It eventually accumulates in the organ or area of your body being examined, where it gives off energy in the form of gamma rays.

What are the advantages of nuclear medicine?

Nuclear medicine is used to diagnose, manage, treat and prevent serious disease.

Nuclear medicine tests are extremely sensitive to abnormalities in organs. They can often identify abnormalities much sooner than other tests can, allowing treatment to start earlier.

And earlier treatment can lead to a better prognosis.

How are these procedures used?

Common uses include:

  • Analyze kidney function
  • Image blood flow and function of the heart
  • Scan lungs for respiratory and blood-flow problems
  • Identify blockage of the gallbladder
  • Evaluate bones for fracture, infection, arthritis or tumor
  • Determine the presence or spread of cancer
  • Identify bleeding into the bowel
  • Locate the presence of infection
  • Measure thyroid function to detect an overactive or underactive thyroid

About the procedure

Before the test begins, the patient will be given a small amount of radioactive material called a radioisotope; this will be injected, swallowed or inhaled as a gas. There should be little or no discomfort involved in the test. Nuclear medicine procedures are safe, effective and painless.

How long does it take?

How the test is performed depends on the type of scan the physician has ordered. Depending on which type of scan is being performed, the imaging will be done either immediately, a few hours later or even several days after the injection. This allows the isotope time to flow through the body and concentrate in the organ that is being examined.

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.