Nuclear Testing

Nuclear medicine uses images of internal organs and body functions to diagnose and treat various diseases and conditions. These images are produced by injecting or ingesting a radioactive substance prior to an imaging exam and are created by the energy emitted by the radioactive substances. Scans may be performed in conjunction with other types of imaging tests such as CT scans, MRI scans, or X-rays.

Nuclear medicine imaging procedures can precisely identify molecular activity within the body, therefore allowing doctors to diagnose diseases and conditions at the earliest stages. These noninvasive procedure use just a small amount of radioactive material to effectively diagnose and treat a wide range of diseases. Nuclear medicine also uses therapeutic procedures that use small amounts of radioactive material to treat certain types of cancer, blood disorders, thyroid conditions and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Reasons for Nuclear Medicine Procedures

Nuclear medicine uses imaging procedures to view the structure and function of nearly any organ, tissue, or bone within the body. These images are commonly used to:

  • Evaluate blood flow and functioning of the heart
  • Evaluate bones for signs of fracture or arthritis
  • Assess lung function
  • Determine the spread of cancer
  • Locate and diagnose infections
  • Detect and diagnose abnormalities in the brain

Nuclear medicine also uses combinations of radioactive materials and procedures to treat various forms of cancer and disease.

Diagnostic Imaging Procedures

During a nuclear medicine diagnostic exam, the radioactive material, called a tracer, is administered either orally or through intravenous injection. Once inside the body, the tracer spreads and collects in certain areas, reacting with body tissue to produce gamma radiation. After a certain amount of time has passed and the tracer is fully absorbed, the patient lies down on the scanning table and a gamma camera may be positioned above or below the table. The camera detects the emitted gamma radiation and the information is processed by a computer and then displayed on the screen. The entire process can take from 20 minutes to several hours to perform, depending on the type of exam. Neither the injected tracer nor the scans themselves cause any pain, although there may be some discomfort associated with the actual injection.

Therapeutic Procedures

Radioactive Iodine Therapy

Radioactive iodine therapy uses small amounts of radioactive materials to treat thyroid disease. Radioactive iodine is swallowed and absorbed into the bloodstream through the gastrointestinal tract. It becomes concentrated within the blood and works to destroy cancerous or diseased cells within the thyroid.


Radioimmunotherapy combines radiation therapy and immunotherapy to treat various forms of cancer. A monoclonal antibody is created to mimic the antibodies that are naturally produced within the body's immune system. The monoclonal antibody is combined with radioactive material and injected into the patient's bloodstream. The antibody attaches to the cancer cells, allowing a high dose of radiation to be delivered directly to the tumor.

Risks of Nuclear Medicine Procedures

Nuclear medicine procedures result in very low radiation exposure to patients. While these procedures are considered safe, there are minimal risks which may include:

  • Allergic reaction to radioactive materials
  • Pain or soreness at the injection site
  • Temporary discomfort if a catheter is used

Nuclear medicine imaging tests offer detailed information for the structure and functions of tissue and organs that is not available in other imaging procedures. Nuclear medicine therapeutic treatments are an effective option for treating many medical conditions.

Additional Resources