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What Is Nuclear Cardiology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 11 July 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Nuclear cardiology applies advanced imaging techniques to the diagnosis of heart conditions. As the name implies, these techniques involve the use of radioactive isotopes to assess heart function and the supply of blood to the heart. Patients may require testing for a number of reasons; if they have symptoms of heart disease, if they need to be evaluated to see how they responded to treatment, or have risk factors for so-called “silent” heart disease, where symptoms don’t develop until the condition is quite advanced. Facilities with nuclear cardiology laboratories can offer testing on an outpatient and inpatient basis.

One of the most common tests used in this field is a myocardial perfusion study. The patient reports for testing and receives a small injection of a radioactive tracer material which is monitored with a gamma camera as it moves through the body while the patient is at rest. Next, the patient’s heart is stressed with exercise or medication to see how this affects changes in the supply of blood to the heart. Emissions from the tracer can be followed as they move through the heart muscle, showing whether some areas are not getting enough blood.

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Other studies in nuclear cardiology can allow doctors to evaluate the blood vessels around the heart as well as the heart’s function. Radioactive isotopes typically have a short half-life, so risks are limited. The noninvasive nature of the test is particularly beneficial, as it provides a glimpse into the heart without subjecting the patient to the stress of surgery or invasive procedures. Facilities that don’t have the capacity for these kinds of studies may send patients to a partner institution for testing.

If a problem is identified on a nuclear cardiology scan, treatment options can vary. Patients may need to make diet or lifestyle changes to address the onset of silent heart disease. Medications or surgery might be required to treat other conditions. The best option can depend on the diagnosis, the patient’s medical history, and the experience of the doctor supervising the case. Further nuclear cardiology studies may be required to follow up after the patient receives treatment.

Direct patient care is not the only area of practice in nuclear cardiology. This field also includes research to improve the safety and efficacy of testing, as well as expand available test options and their applicability. Research and development can include bench laboratory work, clinical trials, and reviews in hospital and clinic environments.

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