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Nuclear Medicine Procedures

What are nuclear medicine procedures?

Nuclear medicine procedures are used in diagnosing and treating certain illnesses. These procedures use radioactive materials called radiopharmaceuticals. Examples of diseases treated with nuclear medicine procedures are hyperthyroidism, thyroid cancer, lymphomas, and bone pain from some types of cancer.

The amount of radioactive materials used in diagnosing illnesses depends on the needs of the person and range from a small amount to a large amount. These materials flow through different body organs and in some cases are taken up by specific organs or tissue. The radiation that comes from the radiopharmaceutical is used for treatment or is detected by a camera to take pictures of the corresponding body organ, region or tissue.


What happens during a nuclear medicine imaging procedure?

  • During a nuclear medicine imaging procedure, doctors give patients radiopharmaceuticals. Depending on the type of medical examination they can be breathed in (inhaled), injected, or swallowed.
  • Once the radiopharmaceutical is given, the patient is usually asked to lie down on a table. A special camera that detects radiation is placed over the patient’s body to take pictures. A computer is used to show where the body concentrates the radioactive material. This allows doctors to check if organs are working properly and diagnose diseases.
  • The radioactive materials usually leave the body within hours to months.
Photo: Thyroid Uptake Scan Equipment

Photo of a machine used for a thyroid scan (click to enlarge)


What are radioactive materials?

Radioactive materials are chemicals that release radiation (energy). Radioactive materials can be natural or they can be man-made. They can be solids (like some rocks on earth) or liquids or they can also be gases that people can breathe (like radon). Each radioactive material has a unique half-life, which tells how quickly it stops being radioactive.


Are any health effects associated with nuclear medicine procedures?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and states regulate the use of radioactive materials for nuclear medicine to make sure patients, medical personnel, and the public are safe. Before any type of nuclear medicine procedure is used, it must be justified to ensure the benefits of the procedures outweigh risks to the patient. However, exposure to too much radiation can quickly damage organs or tissues, while exposure to any amount of radiation might lead to an increase in the risk of cancer years after the exposure occurs. Image Gently is a campaign that encourages medical facilities to use a “child size” amount of radioactive material when a child has a nuclear medicine procedure.


What are some common nuclear medicine procedures?

There are several nuclear medicine procedures for diagnosing illnesses and treating diseases.

Some common procedures are as follows:

Diagnostic Procedures

  • Heart disease can be diagnosed with a stress test using Sestamibi that contains technetium-99m or through the use of positron emission tomography (PET) scans. See more information about how PET scans are used in nuclear medicine in the section below.
  • Gallbladder problems can be diagnosed using hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scans that contain a radioactive material tracer, usually technetium-99m.
  • Thyroid disease can be diagnosed with a radioactive iodine thyroid scan that utilizes sodium iodine which contains iodine-131.

Therapeutic Procedures


Photo: Gamma Camera

Photo of a gamma camera used with Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans (click to enlarge)

How are PET scans used?

Doctors use PET scans to get more data about how body organs are functioning. PET scans may be performed together with a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan that provides an image of the organ. PET scans provide a clear view of how the organs are working at the cellular level and if they have been damaged. The scan helps doctors determine effective treatment options. PET scans are commonly used to diagnose heart conditions, help doctors determine appropriate cancer treatment, help in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease and brain disorders. They also can provide data for medical research.

 
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