Nuclear medicine tests use radiopharmaceuticals that are administered via a vein, ingested, or inhaled. The pharmaceuticals are radioactive and give off radiation which is captured with a special camera to form an image. Other radiology tests use radiation itself to form the image, like X-ray and CT.
Nuclear medicine tests give us information about function
The radiopharmaceutical varies based on what anatomy is being examined. The radiopharmaceuticals go preferentially to different organs and give us information on the function. This is unlike most other radiology tests which give us information about the actual anatomy of the organ system.
Nuclear medicine tests are performed by a specially trained technologist. The test will usually be done in the radiology department. At many hospitals, nuclear medicine is considered part of radiology.
The technologist will administer the radiopharmaceuticals and image the patient. The injection through the vein will usually not hurt. The radiation dose to the body is relatively low. The images acquired by the technologist are then interpreted by a radiologist or nuclear medicine physician.
Radiologists all have experience in their training with nuclear medicine. Some radiologists choose to specialize in nuclear medicine further. There is also training for nuclear medicine physicians after medical school. These types of specialized nuclear medicine physicians are less common outside of academic centers.
What is nuclear medicine used for?
Nuclear medicine tests are commonly done to look at individual organs like the heart, lungs, gallbladder, thyroid, and kidneys. These tests often evaluate the function of the organs. They also answer specific questions like is the kidney blocked? Is there a clot in the lungs? How is the thyroid functioning?
Nuclear medicine tests are also done to look for abnormalities like infection in the body, called a white blood cell scan. Nuclear medicine tests are also used to look for bleeding, called a tagged red blood cell scan. These are just some of the other more broad applications that are commonly done.
How long do they take?
Nuclear Medicine tests can take hours to complete. Unlike CT which is instantaneous, nuclear medicine tests take longer. Some nuclear medicine tests require imaging continuously and others require imaging at specific times. Nuclear medicine tests sometimes require the you to come back later in the day or even the next day.
Nuclear medicine is therefore a broad branch of medicine that has many different applications. It is unique in that we are able to get information about function, unlike many other tests in radiology which will look at the anatomy. Nuclear medicine tests use radiation which is administered into the body via a pharmaceutical. The image is formed by the radiation emitted into a camera.