A Simple Explanation

Nuclear medicine involves the administration of radioactive substances in order to diagnose and treat diseases.

What is it?

Nuclear medicine can be assumed as radiology done inside out or endoradiology since it records radiation emitting from within the body rather than radiation that is generated by external sources like X-rays.

Nuclear medicine scans are different from Radiology scans as the emphasis is not on imaging anatomy but the function and so it is called a physiological imaging modality. Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography or SPECT and Positron Emission Tomography or PET scans are the two most common imaging modalities in nuclear medicine.

The imaging procedures used are non-invasive and, except for the intravenous injections used to inject the tracer, are usually painless medical tests that help physicians diagnose and evaluate medical conditions. The radioactive materials that are used here are called radiopharmaceuticals or radiotracers.

How does it diagnose?

Keeping the type of Nuclear Medicine exam in mind, the radiotracer is either injected into the body, swallowed or inhaled as a gas and accumulates in the organ or area of the body being examined.

The radiotracer emits radioactive emissions, which are detected by an imaging device that produce pictures and provides molecular information.

In some cases, nuclear medicine images can be superimposed with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to produce special views, known as image fusion or co-registration. This allows information from two different exams to be correlated and interpreted on one image, leading to more precise information and accurate diagnoses.

Nowadays, it is possible to perform both imaging exams at the same time, using single photon emission computed tomography/computed tomography (SPECT/CT) and positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) units.

How does it cure?

Nuclear medicine is a source of therapy, for

  • Therapeutic procedures, like radioactive iodine (I-131) therapy that use small amounts of radioactive material to treat cancer and other medical conditions affecting the thyroid gland, as well as treatments for other cancers and medical conditions.
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patients who do not respond to chemotherapy may undergo RadioImmunoTherapy (RIT). This is a personalized cancer treatment that combines radiation therapy with the targeting ability of immunotherapy, a treatment that mimics cellular activity in the body's immune system.

Patient’s Role

  • Please wear a gown, or insist for one, during the procedure.
  • If you are an Expecting or Nursing mother, please inform your doctor before the procedure.
  • Inform your doctor of your past allergies, and any other ailments, if any.
  • Please inform your doctor about the medications you are taking for any of your ailments, including vitamins or herbal supplements.
  • Please refrain from wearing jewellery or any metallic objects on your body, as it interferes with the procedure.


Radiation dose is given to a patient undergoing Nuclear Medicine procedure. Under present international guidelines, it is assumed that any radiation dose, however small, presents risk.

The doses administered, though unproven, are generally accepted to present a very small risk of inducing cancer. But do keep in mind, same risk is expected from an X-ray procedure too, albeit the dose is delivered internally rather than externally like in X-ray tests and the dosage amounts are typically significantly higher than those of X-rays.

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