Most radiology exams use a source of radiation outside the body to diagnose diseases. Nuclear medicine, on the other hand, flips that around: It uses a very small amount of radioactive material placed in an IV, inhaled or ingested into the body. These “radiotracers” are then recorded by nuclear medicine cameras so doctors can closely examine specific organs, bones, tumor or infections.
Nuclear medicine imaging may be used early on in the course of a disease to help decide what treatment is needed and to see if the treatment is working.
At Augusta University Health, all of our Nuclear Medicine Technologists are certified with the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board and may also have additional certifications in cardiac nuclear medicine and PET/CT.
This means that our nuclear medicine specialists are experts in this field, with the highest level of skill in the safe and effective performance of nuclear medicine scans.
Also, many hospitals may have general radiologists reading nuclear medicine scans. But at Augusta University, all of our scans are read by physicians who are specialty trained and board certified by the American Board of Nuclear Medicine, which means our physicians meet or exceed national standards for education, knowledge, experience and skills in interpreting nuclear medicine scans.
We are also certified by the American College of Radiology Imaging Network and the Society of Nuclear Medicine Clinical Trials Network. ^
Many patients may wonder, “Is nuclear medicine safe? What happens to the radioactive materials in my body?”
We use a very small amount of radiotracer to obtain a nuclear medicine scan, about the same or less than what you would receive in a computed tomography (CT) or fluoroscopy scan. The radiotracer is designed to travel directly to the part of the body that is being studied.
Because this small amount of radiotracer is in your body and not emitted by an outside device, we can take many, many scans without worrying about having to increase the amount of radiation you receive.
You also will not stay “radioactive.” Depending on the tracer, the radioactive material safely degrades within a few days at most and is free of any side effects.
Our nuclear medicine cameras do not emit any radiation. They also employ the latest technology to record tomogram scans, or slices of the body part being scanned. This type of superior imaging known as a SPECT-CT scan is more thorough than what is available at many other sites. ^
At Augusta University, we offer the broadest range of nuclear medicine scans in the region, allowing us to diagnose many medical conditions and diseases:
- Brain scans, for memory problems, tremors, seizures, or tumors.
- Thyroid scans, to evaluate thyroid function and structure, parathyroid over activity, and for treatment of thyroid disease including cancer.
- Lung scans, for identifying blood clots in the lungs and breathing problems.
- Heart scans, to identify abnormal blood flow to the heart, determine the risk for or extent of damage to heart muscle after a heart attack, and measure heart function or heart failure.
- Stomach (or gastric) emptying scans, for patients with nausea, vomiting, heartburn or reflux, or to find the site of bleeding in the stomach or intestines.
- Liver and gallbladder scans, to see if nausea, vomiting or pain is caused by gallstones or infection.
- Renal scans, to examine function of the kidneys and to detect abnormalities such as tumors or obstruction of the renal blood flow or urine outflow.
- Bone scans, to evaluate bone pain, arthritis in the joints, bone tumors, fractures or infection.
- Tumor and infection scans, to find tumors or infection in unknown sites.
Our nuclear medicine physicians also serve as consultants to the Cancer Center tumor boards. We review a patient’s history together with the results of their nuclear imaging studies to provide recommendations for optimal therapy and care management. ^
Before your exam:
If you are pregnant, think you might be pregnant or are breastfeeding, tell your physician and radiographer.
For most studies, no preparation is needed. For scans of the heart, stomach, and gallbladder, you will be instructed to have nothing to eat or drink after midnight except water. Patients with certain thyroid conditions may also require special precautions.
During your exam:
- Depending on the organ to be studied, the radiotracer is injected into a vein, inhaled into the lungs or swallowed. For most exams, the radiotracer is delivered via an IV.
- Images may be made immediately or you may be asked to return at a later time. In addition, images may be taken over an extended period of time. Every exam is different and could take minutes to hours.
- During the actual scan, you will lie down on a table while the camera records the radiotracer as it moves through the body or is trapped in an organ.
After your exam:
If you plan to travel by airplane within a few days of your nuclear medicine scan, make sure to inform your physician. It’s possible the radiotracer could set off radiation detectors at the airport. Your doctor can provide you with a card that explains that you have recently undergone a nuclear medicine scan. ^