McLaren Health Care
Nuclear Medicine

What is a Nuclear Medicine Scan?

Nuclear medicine is a subspecialty within the field of radiology that uses very small amounts of radioactive material called a radiopharmaceutical or radiotracer to diagnose disease and other abnormalities within the body.

Depending on the type of nuclear medicine scan you are undergoing, the radiotracer is injected into a vein, swallowed by mouth, or inhaled as a gas. It eventually collects in the area of your body being scanned, where it gives off energy in the form of gamma rays. This energy is detected by a device called a gamma camera and/or probe. These devices work together with a computer to measure the amount of radiotracer absorbed by your body and to produce pictures offering details about both the structure and function of organs and other internal body parts.

MRI

The Process

  • In a nuclear medicine exam, you receive a small amount of radioactive tracer material, known as a radiopharmaceutical, usually as an injection, a gas that you inhale, or an oral pill.
  • A special camera takes pictures to see how your body absorbs and processes the tracer.
  • Nuclear medicine exams are used to detect and monitor many types of cancer; bone and cardiac scans are two common exams.
  • All nuclear medicine scans are read by a radiologist specialty trained in nuclear medicine.
  • We use state-of-the-art equipment and technology, including SPECT imaging.
  • We carefully tailor the dose to each patient, using as little radiation as possible without losing image quality.
  • Nuclear medicine scan times vary. You will receive specific instructions at the time your exam is scheduled.
  • The camera may rotate around you.
  • The tracer will lose its radioactivity, usually over the first 24 hours following the test, and pass out of your body naturally.

Common Uses

Nuclear medicine imaging is accurate, safe, and represents the broadest spectrum diagnostics for both general medicine and specialties including:

Oncologic Applications
  • Tumor localization and staging
  • Metastatic identification
Orthopedic Applications
  • Sports injury identification (occult bone trauma)
  • Osteomyelitis diagnostics
Other Applications
  • Hyperthyroidism diagnosis and treatment (Graves' disease)
  • Acute cholecystitis detection
  • Cardiac applications

Safety

Because the doses of radiotracer administered are small, diagnostic nuclear medicine procedures result in minimal radiation exposure. Thus, the radiation risk is very low compared with the potential benefits. Nuclear medicine has been used for more than five decades and there are no known long-term adverse effects from such low-dose exposure. Allergic reactions to radiopharmaceuticals may occur but are extremely rare.

Women should always inform their physician or radiology technologist if there is any possibility that they are pregnant or if they are breastfeeding.

Before the Nuclear Medicine Scan

You will receive specific instructions based on the type of scan you are undergoing. In general, the following guidelines apply to all scans.

  • Medications: You should inform your physician of any medications you are taking, as well as vitamins and herbal supplements, and if you have any allergies. Also inform your physician about recent illnesses or other medical conditions. Upon checking in, you will be asked to provide a list of medications you are currently taking and also a list of known allergies. 

  • What to wear: You will wear your own clothing during the scan. Please wear something without metal clasps or zippers, as they will interfere with the study. Jewelry and other accessories should be left at home if possible, or removed prior to the scan.

During the Nuclear Medicine Scan

  • Scanning: You will be positioned on an examination table. If necessary, a technologist will insert an intravenous (IV) line into a vein in your hand or arm.

    Depending on the type of nuclear medicine scan you are undergoing, the dose of radiotracer will be injected intravenously, swallowed by mouth, or inhaled as a gas.

    It can take several seconds to several days for the radiotracer 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.

    When it is time for the imaging to begin, the gamma camera 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 between images. While the camera is taking pictures, you will need to remain still. It is important that you remain still while the images are being recorded. Though nuclear imaging itself causes no pain, there may be some discomfort from having to remain in one particular position.

  • Length of scan: The length of time for nuclear medicine procedures varies greatly, depending on the type of scan. Actual scanning time for nuclear imaging scans can take from 20 minutes to several hours and may be conducted over several days. You will be given specific information depending on the type of study you are having.

After the Nuclear Medicine Scan

  • Instructions: When the scan is completed, you may be asked to wait until the technologist checks the images in case additional images are needed. If you had an IV line inserted for the procedure, it will be removed. Through the natural process of radioactive decay, the small amount of radiotracer in your body will lose its radioactivity over time. In many cases, the radioactivity will dissipate over the first 24 hours following the test and pass out of your body through your urine or stool. You should also drink plenty of water to help flush the radioactive material out of your body.

    Unless your physician tells you otherwise, you may resume your normal activities after your nuclear medicine scan.

  • Exam results: Nuclear Medicine exams are interpreted by a radiologist. Under normal circumstances, the reports are available electronically to the ordering physician 24-48 hours. Your referring physician will communicate these results to you.

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