Nuclear medicine is a specialized area of radiology that uses very small amounts of radioactive materials, or radiopharmaceuticals, to examine organ function and structure. Nuclear medicine imaging is a combination of many different disciplines, including chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer technology, and medicine. This branch of radiology is often used to help diagnose and treat abnormalities very early in the progression of a disease, such as thyroid cancer.
Since x-rays pass through soft tissue, such as intestines, muscles, and blood vessels, contrast agents are used in nuclear imaging. Nuclear imaging examines organ function and structure, whereas diagnostic radiology is based on anatomy.
Scans are used to diagnose many medical conditions and diseases. Some of the more common tests include the following:
- renal scans - used to examine the kidneys and to detect any abnormalities, such as tumors or obstruction of the renal blood flow.
- thyroid scans - used to evaluate thyroid function.
- bone scans - used to evaluate any degenerative and/or arthritic changes in the joints, to detect bone diseases and tumors, and/or to determine the cause of bone pain or inflammation.
- gallium scans - used to diagnose active infectious and/or inflammatory diseases, tumors, and abscesses.
- heart scans - 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.
- brain scans - used to investigate problems within the brain and/or in the blood circulation to the brain.
- breast scans - often used with mammograms to locate cancerous tissue in the breast.
How are nuclear medicine scans done?
As stated above, nuclear medicine scans may be performed on many organs and tissues of the body. Each type of scan employs certain technology, radiopharmaceuticals, and procedures.