Nuclear Medicine

What is Nuclear Medicine?

Nuclear medicine involves the use of small amounts of radioactive materials (or tracers) to help diagnose and treat a variety of diseases. Nuclear medicine determines the cause of the medical problem based on the function of the organ, tissue or bone. This is how nuclear medicine differs from an x-ray, ultrasound or any other diagnostic test that determines the presence of disease based on structural appearance.

What is positron emission tomography (PET)?

PET is a powerful diagnostic test that is having a major impact on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Because disease is a biological process and PET is a biological imaging examination, PET can detect and stage most cancers, often before they are evident through other tests. PET can also give physicians important early information about heart disease and many neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s.

A PET scan examines your body’s chemistry. Most common medical tests, like CT and MR scans, only show details about the structure of your body. PET is different. It also provides information about function. With a single PET procedure, physicians can collect images of function throughout the entire body, uncovering abnormalities that might otherwise go undetected.

For example, a PET scan is the most accurate, non-invasive way to tell whether or not a tumor is benign or malignant, sparing patients expensive, often painful diagnostic surgeries and suggesting treatment options earlier in the course of the disease. And although cancer spreads silently in the body, PET can inspect all organs of the body for cancer in a single examination!

PET is able to detect extremely small cancerous tumors and very subtle changes of function in the brain and heart. This allows physicians to treat these diseases earlier and more accurately. A PET scan puts time on your side! The earlier the diagnosis, the better the chance for treatment.

Is nuclear medicine safe?

Nuclear medicine procedures are among the safest diagnostic imaging exams available. A patient only receives an extremely small amount of a radiopharmaceutical, just enough to provide sufficient diagnostic information. In fact, the amount of radiation from a nuclear medicine procedure is comparable to, or often times less than, that of a diagnostic x-ray.

Although we don’t think much about it, everyone is continually exposed to radiation from natural and manmade sources. For most people, natural background radiation from space, rocks, soil, and even carbon and potassium atoms in his or her own body, accounts for 85 percent of their annual exposure. Additional exposure is received from consumer products such as household smoke detectors, color television sets, and luminous dial clocks. The remainder is from x-rays and radioactive materials used for medical diagnosis and therapy. With most nuclear medicine procedures, the patient receives about the same amount of radiation as that acquired in a few months of normal living.

Because of their special training, the nuclear medicine physician is able to select the most appropriate examination for the patient’s particular medical problem, thereby avoiding any unnecessary radiation exposure.

What are the benefits of nuclear medicine?

Nuclear medicine is a safe, painless, and cost-effective way of gathering information that may otherwise be unavailable or require a more expensive and risky diagnostic test. One unique aspect of a nuclear medicine test is its extreme sensitivity to abnormalities in an organ’s structure or function. As an integral part of patient care, nuclear medicine is used in the diagnosis, management, treatment and prevention of serious disease. Nuclear medicine imaging procedures often identify abnormalities very early in the progression of a disease long before some medical problems are apparent with other diagnostic tests. This early detection allows a disease to be treated early in its course when there may be a better prognosis.

Although nuclear medicine is commonly used for diagnostic purposes, it also has valuable therapeutic applications such as treatment of hyperthyroidism, thyroid cancer, blood imbalances, and any bony pain from certain types of cancer.