Nuclear medicine is a branch of medicine within medical imaging that uses nuclear properties for in diagnosis and therapy. More specifically, nuclear medicine is a part of molecular imaging because it produces images that reflect biological processes that take place at the cellular and subcellular level. Nuclear medicine uses small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose or treat a variety of diseases, including many types of cancers, heart disease and certain other abnormalities within the body.
Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam you are undergoing, the radiotracer is either injected into a vein, swallowed or inhaled as a gas and 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 few different types of devices:
- Gamma camera
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner and/or probe
- Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT)
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.
Nuclear medicine therapies include:
- Radioactive iodine (I-131) therapy used to treat hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland, for example, Graves' disease) and thyroid cancer.
- Radioactive antibodies used to treat certain forms of lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system).
- Radioactive phosphorus (P-32) used to treat certain blood disorders.
- Radioactive materials used to treat painful tumor metastases to the bones.