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Nuclear Medicine is a branch of radiology that focuses on the body’s function at the molecular level rather than structure (as with traditional imaging techniques such as X-ray, CT, and MRI). Nuclear Medicine allows your doctors to evaluate the body’s functions as they are happening in real time. This allows many disease processes and changes related to treatment strategies to be detected earlier than with other imaging techniques.
Nuclear medicine imaging is also different from traditional imaging in that, unlike X-rays which are generated from a machine and passed through the body to form an imaging, in nuclear medicine, the gamma rays are injected into the body and images are formed by collecting information as they leave the body. The camera detects the gamma rays emitted from the patient. The inject material is called a tracer or radiopharmaceutical.
Nuclear Medicine scans are done to evaluate for a number of conditions including: tumor evaluation and localization, lung function, cardiovascular disease, kidney function, liver and gallbladder function, and gastrointestinal disorders.
Nuclear medicine exams are tailored to evaluate very specific clinical questions. Depending on your examination, you may be injected with tracer through an IV, eat or drink the trace, or breathe in the tracer. Some exams may require administration of specific medications during the examination or additional imaging (such as x-rays) after the exam.
Nuclear Medicine examinations typically last longer than many other radiographic examinations. This is because it takes time for tracers to be distributed throughout the body and to localize to certain tissues. Unlike a X-ray or CT which is a ‘snapshot’ in time of the body, Nuclear Medicine images the body over time to determine how the body is working. Therefore, it is not uncommon for examinations to last several hours or be done over the course of several days. In most instances, the vast majority of the time is spent allowing tracers to do their work and is not actually spend in the imaging suites; however, in some instances, movement of tracers is captured in real time and longer periods of time in the imaging suite are necessary.
If you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, or if you are nursing, be sure to discuss this with your physician before undergoing this procedure.
On the day of the exam, remember to dress in comfortable clothing. Jewelry and metallic objects (eg. belt buckle) may need to be removed or should be left at home, as they can interfere with the examination.
Tracers, whether given IV, orally, or inhaled, generally produce very little symptoms. Unless instructed otherwise by your physician, you may resume normal activities and diet following the examination. Any residual radioactivity in the body after your procedure will decay to non-radioactive substances through normal processes. Many tracers are excreted in the urine and stool, so drinking plenty of water may help to remove radiation from the bladder and bowel. Unless instructed to do so by your physician, there is no need to suspend normal social interactions with friends and family due to radiation exposure.