What is nuclear medicine?

Nuclear medicine is a medical specialty that helps physicians diagnose and treat disease by showing how different organs are functioning inside the body. Through the use of radiopharmaceuticals and gamma cameras, physicians can gain valuable medical information and identify issues in the earliest stages of a disease. This insight allows patients to begin treatment earlier, so as to give them the most promising prognosis possible.

How does it work?

A radiopharmaceutical is simply a medicine that is combined with a small quantity of radioactive material, which is designed to highlight a particular part of the body. It involves the ingestion, inhalation, or injection of the radiopharmaceutical, followed by an imaging procedure using a gamma camera. These images record radiation that comes from within the body as opposed to radiation that is sent through the body like X-rays and CT scans. Those tests focus on anatomy and structural appearance of organs, while nuclear medicine procedures focus on organ function.

The technologist who performs the scans and the physicians who supervise the procedure and interpret the results are specially trained and certified in nuclear medicine.

What diseases can be diagnosed?

Nuclear medicine can be used to diagnose many diseases, including those that would typically require exploratory surgery, like lesions located deep inside the body. For example, nuclear medicine testing can be used to determine whether the heart can efficiently pump blood, the brain is receiving enough blood supply, whether organ cells are functioning properly, if kidneys are receiving and filtering blood correctly, or if the stomach is processing food or liquids properly.

Nuclear medicine procedures can determine a patients’ blood volume, lung function, vitamin absorption, and bone density. Images from nuclear medicine can effectively identify sites of epilepsy seizures, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or locate cancers. After a heart attack, nuclear imaging can measure the extent of damage to the heart. This imaging modality can also determine how well newly transplanted organs are functioning.

What’s next?

Research in nuclear medicine results in daily advancements and refinement of equipment and procedures. With more than 5,000 nuclear medicine centers in the U.S., performing nearly 18 million procedures every year, Nuclear Medicine continues to be a safe and powerful means of identifying and treating many diseases. Research and development in the field is robust and will likely result in new, novel diagnostic and therapeutic procedures for the benefit of patients worldwide.


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