Nuclear Medicine & Molecular Imaging

Nuclear medicine is a medical specialty that uses safe, painless and cost-effective techniques to image the body and treat disease. Nuclear medicine imaging is unique in that it documents organ function and structure. Non-nuclear diagnostic radiology, on the other hand, documents anatomy. Nuclear medicine is a way to gather medical information that may otherwise be unavailable, require surgery or necessitate more expensive diagnostic tests.

Download and print Your Guide to Nuclear Medicine brochure (pdf 150KB).

How Nuclear Medicine Works

Nuclear medicine procedures use radioactive compounds, or radioisotopes, to diagnose disease, pinpoint its location and provide direct treatment. The compounds are given to patients by injection in a vein, by inhalation or by mouth. Various drugs and naturally occurring compounds are tagged with radiotracers for use in nuclear medicine. When these tagged substances are introduced into the body, they collect in the organs targeted for examination or treatment.

  • During scanning procedures, a gamma camera, or a hand-held imaging probe, is used to detect signals emitted from the radiotracers and to create a picture of the chemical functions of the targeted area. If a part of an organ is not functioning normally, the intensity of the signals will be different than those in the surrounding tissue.
  • During therapeutic procedures, the tagged compounds collect in the organ targeted for treatment, and the radiation destroys the abnormal cells.

Uses of Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine procedures are used to create images of organs and their functions, locate disease within the body and deliver treatment directly to targeted anatomical sites. The key imaging procedures the Emory Division of Nuclear Medicine & Molecular Imaging offers include:

  • Cardiac imaging and function studies
  • Thyroid imaging and function studies
  • Lung imaging
  • Kidney imaging
  • Bone scans
  • Hepatobiliary (liver, bile duct and gallbladder) imaging
  • Tumor localization and characterization
  • Melanoma and breast cancer staging

Therapeutic procedures include treatment for:

  • Hyperthyroidism and thyroid cancer
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Neuroendocrine tumors that have spread to other organs
  • Pain resulting from cancer that has spread to the bone

Safeness of Nuclear Medicine Procedures

Nuclear medicine procedures are very safe. A patient typically receives a small amount of radioactive tracer – just enough to provide accurate diagnostic information or therapeutic benefit. The amount of radiation in a nuclear medicine procedure is similar or less than that received during a typical CT exam. Nuclear medicine procedures have been in use for more than half a century, during which time no long-term adverse effects have been seen. In addition, the benefits far outweigh any slight risk from the small amounts of radiation administered.

Most people are candidates for nuclear medicine procedures. However, pregnant women and nursing mothers should usually not undergo nuclear medicine procedures unless the potential benefits far outweigh the associated risk. In addition, people who have recently suffered a stroke and people who have certain allergies or blood disorders may not be suitable to undergo some nuclear medicine procedures.

The Nuclear Medicine Procedure

To begin the procedure, we will inject a small amount of radioactive compound into the bloodstream, or we will ask you to swallow a capsule or small amount of liquid. We may also ask you to drink some oral contrast to aid in the CT portion of the scan, if applicable. In some cases, we may need to insert a catheter into your bladder.

If you are undergoing an imaging procedure:

  • Following the injection, we will ask you to wait while the injection compound is distributed throughout your body. In some cases, distribution of the compound takes a considerable length of time, and you will be required to return to the center at a later date to be scanned.
  • For the actual scan, we will ask you to lie still on a table that passes slowly through the imaging machine, or the technologist will pass over the targeted area with a hand-held probe.
  • When the exam is complete, we will ask you to remain in the waiting room until we review the images for completeness. Occasionally, we may require additional images.

If you are undergoing a therapeutic procedure, we may give you instructions regarding follow-up visits with your nuclear medicine physician before discharging you. We may also give you specific instructions with regard to food and beverage intake for a period of time following the procedure.