Nuclear medicine is a remarkable branch of imaging that is used to investigate and treat abnormal physiologic activity in many areas of the body. Instead of producing pictures of tumors or fractures, nuclear medicine visualizes activity within your body at the molecular level. Certified radiologists in the Nuclear Medicine Department at Palo Alto Medical Foundation will guide you through your diagnostic tests with the care, attention and expertise you deserve.
What Is Nuclear Medicine?
Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical imaging that uses small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose or treat a variety of diseases and medical conditions, including many types of cancers, heart disease and certain other abnormalities within the body.
Unlike other imaging techniques that focus on depicting structures (bones, ligaments, organs, etc) within the body, nuclear medicine imaging focuses on depicting physiologic processes within the body enabling radiologists to identify early stages of a disease as well as monitor the patient’s response to therapeutic interventions.
Some nuclear medicine imaging examinations, such as PET-CT, use both nuclear medicine and the digital x-ray technology known as CT to concurrently look at physiology and anatomy, assuring more accurate diagnostic testing for our patients.
How Is the Study Performed?
Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam you receive, the radiopharmaceutical, or radiotracer, is injected into a vein, swallowed in a pill or inhaled as a gas.
Once inside the body, the radioactive material eventually accumulates in the organ or area of your body being examined, where it gives off energy in the form of gamma rays. This energy is detected by a device called a gamma camera, a PET scanner and/or probe.
These devices work together with a computer to measure the amount of radiotracer absorbed by your body and to produce special pictures offering details on both the structure and function of organs and tissues. This differs from an x-ray or CT, where an image is made by passing x-rays through your body from an outside source.
Nuclear medicine also offers therapeutic procedures such as radioactive iodine (I-131) therapy, which uses radioactive material to treat cancer and other medical conditions affecting the thyroid gland.
Why Is Nuclear Medicine Used?
Nuclear medicine is used to provide a detailed diagnostic view of a variety of organs and other body parts, such as the heart, lungs, bones, and brain. It can also be used to evaluate other systems and processes like blood flow, inflammation, infection, bleeding, fever, stomach emptying and spinal fluid flow.
Nuclear medicine imaging can be used to:
- Analyze kidney function and obstruction
- Visualize heart blood flow and function (such as a myocardial perfusion scan “stress test”)
- Scan lungs for respiratory and blood flow problems
- Identify inflammation in the gallbladder
- Evaluate bones for fractures, infection, arthritis and tumors
- Treat or eliminate a tumor with radiosurgery
- Determine the presence or spread of cancer in various parts of the body
- Identify bleeding into the bowel
- Locate infection
- Detect an overactive or underactive thyroid
- Investigate abnormalities in the brain
- Localize the lymph nodes before surgery in patients with breast cancer or melanoma skin cancer