What Is General Nuclear Medicine?

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  • Written By: M. West
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 15 May 2020
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General nuclear medicine is a type of medical imaging, where small quantities of radioactive material are utilized in the diagnosis and treatment of various disorders. These painless, noninvasive tests are imaging scans that employ radioactive materials known as radiopharmaceuticals or radiotracers. Such materials enter the patient’s body through injection, ingestion, or inhalation, where they accumulate in the targeted area being examined. The gamma rays emitted by these substances are detected by devices that work in tandem with a computer to produce detailed pictures of the structure and function of an organ or tissue area. Before having this test, it’s good for patients to become familiar with its applications, benefits, and procedures, so that they will understand the process and know what to expect.

The uses of general nuclear medicine involve the diagnosis and treatment of an array of medical conditions. The procedure provides an analysis of kidney, heart, and thyroid function, and also assesses disease in the digestive system. It locates the presence of cancer or infections, and evaluates bones for conditions, such as fractures or arthritis. Additionally, the test is able to identify bleeding in the bowel, as well as scan the lungs for breathing and blood-flow disorders. The applications of nuclear medicine in regard to treatment include diseases, such as hyperthyroidism and blood disorders, along with lymphoma and other types of cancer.

As with any medical test or treatment, the benefits of general nuclear medicine scans should be weighed against the risks. A main benefit is its superiority over more traditional imaging tests, evidenced by its capacity to depict physiologic processes rather than merely showing static structures and anatomy. The procedure also provides more detailed information than exploratory surgery, yet is less costly. In evaluating the risks, doctors consider the likelihood of adverse effects of the radiation to be low in comparison to the benefits. Reportedly, there are no known long-term detrimental effects of the test; however, women who are breastfeeding or who may be pregnant should inform their doctor prior to the procedure.

Before undergoing any medical test, it is always helpful to understand what will be involved. After the diagnostic chemical has been placed within the patient’s body, it may take from a few seconds to a few days to accumulate in the target area. Because of this time lag, the imaging may be performed several hours to several days later. During the general nuclear medicine imaging, patients must be as still as possible, but the procedure should not be painful. When the procedure is over, patients may be advised to follow a few precautions, such as washing the hands thoroughly after urinating or drinking lots of fluids to help flush the diagnostic material out of their bodies.


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