Nuclear Medicine

What is an Nuclear Medicine Exam?

Nuclear medicine is a subspecialty within the field of radiology. It comprises diagnostic examinations that result in images of organ function, and to some degree, body anatomy. Nuclear Medicine is primarily used to a see how body organs work, as opposed to simply looking at structure. The images are developed based on the detection of energy emitted from a small amount of a radioactive substance given to the patient, either intravenously or by mouth.  This compound, called a radiopharmaceutical agent or tracer, eventually collects in the organ and gives off energy as gamma rays. The gamma camera detects the rays and works with a computer to produce images and measurements of organs and tissues.

How do I prepare?

Dress casually and in loose clothing when you come for a nuclear medicine procedure, as more than likely you will have to change into a gown. Dressing in a casual manner allows ease in changing. You may not have to take off all of your clothing, but the technologist will let you know exactly which items need to be removed for the procedure.   You may also be asked to remove any jewelry such as watches, necklaces, earrings and body piercings which would interfere with acquiring the image. 

What is involved?

You are given a small dose of a radiopharmaceutical agent, usually intravenously, (like a blood test) but sometimes by mouth, that localizes in specific body organ systems. Most of the radioactivity passes out of your body in urine or stool. The rest simply disappears through natural loss of radioactivity over time.

The gamma camera may look similar to a CT scanner (a large doughnut), or may look like a large circular device suspended above the imaging table.    While the images are being obtained, you must remain as still as possible. This is especially true when a series of images is obtained to show how an organ functions over time.

Some minor discomfort during a nuclear medicine procedure may arise from the intravenous injection, usually done with a small needle. Lying still on the examining table may be uncomfortable for some patients. Patients who are claustrophobic may feel some anxiety while positioned in the scanner. Also, some patients find it uncomfortable to hold one position for more than a few minutes.

After the procedure, a technologist with specialized training in nuclear medicine checks the quality of the images to ensure that an optimal diagnostic study has been performed.

How long will it take?

A radiopharmaceutical agent is usually administered into a vein. 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. Imaging time varies, generally ranging from 20 to 45 minutes.

How do I get my results?

Your results will be read by a radiologist, and a report will be sent to your referring physician, who will go over the results with you.

Are there any risks?

Allergic reactions to the radiopharmaceutical can occur, but are extremely rare.

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