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Diagnostic Nuclear Medicine

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This page describes how diagnostic nuclear medicine is used to diagnose certain medical conditions.

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Overview

Nuclear medicine is a subspecialty within radiology that helps evaluate different organ systems, including kidneys, liver, heart, lungs, thyroid, and bones. For many diseases, nuclear medicine is the most reliable method for making diagnoses and determining appropriate treatments.

While therapeutic nuclear medicine may use large amounts of radioactive materials, diagnostic nuclear medicine generally uses small amounts of radioisotopes, typically technetium-99m, given intravenously or orally. However certain tests such as heart scans use much higher doses. In order to target a specific organ system, the radioisotope, or "tracer", is combined with a chemical known to accumulate in that system. This compound is called a "radio pharmaceutical agent." When it collects in the organ being evaluated, a gamma camera detects gamma rays emitted by the tracer. This data is fed into a computer where it is used to produce images and other information about the organ system.

Nuclear medicine has been used for more than half a century to diagnose and treat many diseases.

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Who is protecting you

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

Under the Atomic Energy Act, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for regulating uses of radioactive material, including radio pharmaceuticals. NRC requires all nuclear medicine facilities to be licensed. The license assures that the facility has a radiation protection program to protect both the patients and the staff. In addition, the staff must meet certain standards of training and experience before they are allowed to administer radioactive material to patients.

The States

Each state has one or more radiation programs that ensure safe use of radioactive materials. NRC has transferred regulatory authority over the use of this material to 34 NRC Agreement States. In these states, the regulatory authority inspects the facility to ensure the staff is trained properly and the equipment is operating safely.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research regulates the radio pharmaceuticals, ensuring effectiveness and patient safety.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

The mission of NIST is to develop and promote measurement, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life. Although a non-regulatory federal agency, NIST develops the standards for correct patient dosage of radio pharmaceuticals.

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What you can do to protect yourself

Talk to a doctor about the risks associated with using nuclear medicine. If you are receiving treatment, follow all instructions given to you by your physician or the radiation safety officer at the facility. Patients who are pregnant, might be pregnant, or are breast feeding should notify their doctors before undergoing treatment.

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Resources

Diagnostic Imaging
April 5, 2012. U.S. National Institutes of Health
Learn more about diagnostic imaging scans, such as CT Scans, MRIs, Ultrasound, X-rays and diagnostic tests.
Nuclear Medicine Technologist
April 5, 2012. U.S. Department of Labor
Explore a career as a Nuclear Medicine Technologist. Learn what the job is, the working conditions and the training requirements.
Nuclear Scans
April 5, 2012. U.S. National Institutes of Health
Get information on nuclear scans and explore the interactive tutorial.
What is a radioactive tracer? exit EPA
April 5, 2012. WebMDHealth
What are radioactive tracers and how do they work? Learn more on this page.

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