What Is the Connection between Radiology and Nuclear Medicine?

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  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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The connection between radiology and nuclear medicine is that nuclear medicine developed out of radiology. Nuclear medicine is the process of administering radioisotopes to patients and measuring the isotopes' distribution using traditional radiological equipment. Abnormal distribution of radioisotopes indicates the presence of cancer. Therefore, it is a powerful tool in locating tumors in both patients newly diagnosed or those who have had cancer in the past.

Since the late 19th century, radiology has allowed physicians to diagnose disease in patients. Originally just X-rays, the technology advanced throughout the 20th century: computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). These imaging systems create clear pictures of internal bodily structures. Trained radiologists can identify many conditions, including broken bones, muscle injuries and tumors. Nuclear medicine developed to fulfill a specific need: the ability to measure a patient's physiological functions over a period of time.

A patient undergoing testing that involves radiology and nuclear medicine must take a radioisotope solution before testing. Some must be injected while others ingested. Different radioisotopes are necessary due to the fact that the body processes each in a unique way. A patient with suspected bone cancer, for example, requires a radioisotopes which the body uses like calcium; the radioisotope collects in the bones, giving the desired effect during imaging. Over the next few hours images are taken on any one of the available radiological machines.


By comparing the images produced through radiology and nuclear medicine, radiologists and physicians are able to evaluate bodily functions. A healthy adult, for example, shows an equal distribution of radioisotopes throughout the body or the specific organ system the radioisotope targets. Disease or dysfunction alters this distribution.

If a patient has cancer, radioisotopes tend to gather around the tumor(s) due to the large blood flow most tumors require. Thus, tumors appear as bright spots, illuminating their presence in the body. Though X-rays, MRIs and CT scans have the ability to spot large tumors, physicians using these devices alone can miss smaller tumors that are not highlighted through the use of radioisotopes.

Due to the ability to uncover small tumors, radiology and nuclear medicine are used regularly to test patients whose cancer has gone into remission. If cancer reappears, physicians can identify it earlier, leading to a better prognosis for the patient. Some of these patients and others with various cancers benefit in other ways from the link between radiology and nuclear medicine. In recent years, some of the radioisotopes used as a diagnostic tool have shown promise as a treatment option.



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