During a nuclear medicine procedure, a radioactive material called a radiopharmaceutical or radiotracer is injected into the bloodstream, swallowed or inhaled as a gas. This radioactive material accumulates in the organ or area of your body being examined, where it gives off a small amount of energy in the form of gamma rays. Special cameras detect this energy and create computer images of the structure and function of organs and tissues in your body.
Nuclear medicine also offers therapeutic procedures. They include radioactive iodine (I-131) therapy that use small amounts of radioactive material to treat cancer and other medical conditions as well as treatments for other cancers and medical conditions.
Prepare for Your Nuclear Medicine Exam
You may be asked to wear a gown during the exam or you may be allowed to wear your own clothing. You should inform your physician and the technologist performing your exam of any medications you are taking, including vitamins and herbal supplements. You should also inform them if you have any allergies and about recent illnesses or other medical conditions. Jewelry and other metallic accessories should be left at home or removed prior to the exam because they may interfere with the procedure. You will receive specific instructions based on the type of scan you need.
You will be positioned on an examination table. If necessary, a nurse or technologist will insert an intravenous (IV) catheter into a vein in your hand or arm. Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam you are undergoing, the dose of radiotracer is then injected intravenously, swallowed or inhaled as a gas.
It can take anywhere from several seconds to several days for the radiotracer to travel through your body and accumulate in the organ or area being studied. As a result, imaging may be done immediately, a few hours later or even several days after you have received the radioactive material.
When it is time for the imaging to begin, the camera or scanner will take a series of images. The camera may rotate around you or it may stay in one position and you may be asked to change positions in between images. While the camera is taking pictures, you will need to remain still for brief periods of time. In some cases, the camera may move very close to your body. This is necessary to obtain the best quality images. If you are claustrophobic, you should inform the technologist before your exam begins.
The images obtained during your exam will be reviewed by a radiologist and a technical report will be sent to your physician.