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Nuclear Medicine

1. What is Nuclear Medicine?

Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical imaging that uses small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose a variety of diseases, including many types of cancers, heart disease and certain other abnormalities within the body.

Nuclear medicine also offers therapeutic exams such as radioactive iodine (I-131) therapy that uses radioactive material to treat medical conditions affecting the thyroid gland.

2. Why is it done?

Nuclear medicine exams allow your doctor to visualize the structure and function of your organs, tissues, bones and other body systems. They can be done to analyze kidney function, visualize the workings of the heart, locate infection and much more.

For example, radioactive iodine therapy is used to treat hyperthyroidism.

3. What are the risks?

Nuclear medicine exams are a very safe and effective way to evaluate body function and structures. Nuclear medicine exams pose few risks. Because the amount of radioactive tracer you will receive is so small, it results in very low radiation exposure. If you experience any adverse symptoms during or after your exam or have existing allergies or have had issues with past exams, you should inform your technologist. If you are pregnant or think you could be pregnant or are breastfeeding, inform your doctor or technologist prior to the exam.

4. How should I prepare?

You will receive specific instructions for your particular exam prior to your exam date. You will be able to wear your own clothing during the exam. You should inform your doctor and the technologist performing your exam of any medications you are taking, including vitamins and herbal supplements, and also inform them if you have any allergies, recent illnesses or other medical conditions prior to beginning your exam.

5. What should I expect?

Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam you are undergoing, the dose of radioactive tracer is injected into your blood stream, swallowed or inhaled as a gas. It can take anywhere from several seconds to several days for the radioactive tracer 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.

The radioactive tracer will give off a small amount of energy that can be detected by special imaging techniques. The images created give details on both the physical structure and the actual functioning of your organs and body tissues. It is important to remain still during the exam so as not to blur your images.

Most nuclear medicine exams are painless and are rarely associated with significant discomfort or side effects. If the radioactive tracer is given intravenously, you will feel a slight pin prick when the needle is inserted into your vein for the intravenous line. When the radioactive material is injected into your arm, you may feel a cold sensation moving up your arm, but there are generally no other side effects. When swallowed, the radioactive tracer has little or no taste. When inhaled, you should feel no differently than when breathing room air or holding your breath.

Unless your physician tells you otherwise, you may resume your normal activities after your nuclear medicine scan. If any special instructions are necessary, a technologist, nurse or doctor will inform you before you leave the nuclear medicine department.

Through the natural process of radioactive decay, the small amount of radioactive tracer in your body will lose its radioactivity over time. It may also pass out of your body through your urine or stool during the first few hours or days following the test. You may be instructed to take special precautions after urinating, to flush the toilet twice and to wash your hands thoroughly. You should also drink plenty of water to help flush the radioactive material out of your body as instructed by the nuclear medicine personnel.

6. Who interprets the results and how do I get them?

One of our radiologists will analyze the images from your exam and then report any findings to your doctor. Your doctor will discuss the results with you and recommend any further actions.