Nuclear Medicine

A non-invasive procedure that uses a small and safe amount of radioactive material to help produce detailed images of the body.

Nuclear medicine is a specialized area of radiology that uses very small amounts of radioactive materials, or radiopharmaceuticals, to examine organ function and structure. It is often used to help diagnose and treat abnormalities very early in the progression of a disease, such as thyroid cancer.

Because X-rays pass through soft tissue, such as intestines, muscles, and blood vessels, these tissues are difficult to visualize on a standard X-ray, unless a contrast agent is used. This allows the tissue to be seen more clearly. Nuclear imaging enables visualization of organ and tissue structure as well as function. The extent to which a radiopharmaceutical is absorbed, or “taken up” by an organ or tissue may indicate the level of function of the organ or tissue being studied. Therefore, diagnostic X-rays are used primarily to study anatomy, whereas nuclear imaging is used to study organ and tissue function.

Nuclear medicine scans are used to diagnose many medical conditions and diseases. Some of the more common tests include the following:

  • Renal Scan: This is used to examine the kidneys and to find abnormal function or obstruction of the renal blood flow.
  • Thyroid Scan: This is used to evaluate thyroid function or to better evaluate a thyroid nodule or mass.
  • Bone Scan: This is used to evaluate any degenerative and/or arthritic changes in the joints, to find bone diseases and tumors, and/or to determine the cause of bone pain or inflammation.
  • Gallium Scan: This is used to diagnose active infectious and/or inflammatory diseases, tumors and abscesses.
  • Heart Scan: This is used to identify abnormal blood flow to the heart, to determine the extent of the damage of the heart muscle after a heart attack, and/or to measure heart function.
  • Breast Scan: This is often used in conjunction with mammograms to locate cancerous tissue in the breast.
  • VQ Lung Scan: A ventilation–perfusion (VQ) scan is used to examine airflow (ventilation) and blood flow (perfusion) in the lungs.


Different types of nuclear medicine exams require different methods of preparation. Consult your healthcare professional for more details on how to prepare for your specific exam.


Depending on the type of test, you may be asked to remove your clothing and put on a gown. A technician or nurse may insert an intravenous line (IV) into your vein to administer the radiotracer. (In some cases, the radiotracer may need several days to travel through your body, so this step may be performed prior to your test date). You may experience minor sensations due to the insertion of the IV.

Once the radiotracer has accumulated in the testing area, a gamma camera will be positioned to the examination area and a series of images will be taken. You will be required to remain still, as movement will affect the scan. The time required for a nuclear medicine scan can vary greatly, from several minutes to several days. In some cases, you may leave and return when necessary.

You may also be asked to wait until the technician checks the images, in case more images are required. This does not mean there are abnormalities in your testing, but only that better visualization is needed.

Some tests may require you to perform exercise on a treadmill or stationary bicycle. You may be required to take medication that will increase blood flow if you are not able to exercise.


You will be able to return to your normal activities when the test is complete, unless your physician or technician tells you otherwise. If a radiotracer was used, drink plenty of water to help flush it from your system.

Source: Hopkinsmedicine.org


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