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What Is a Nuclear Scintigraphy?

Jillian O Keeffe
Jillian O Keeffe

Nuclear scintigraphy is a medical procedure in which a patient undergoes a particular type of scan. For this scan, a doctor injects a radioactive substance into the patient. After a time, the radioactivity settles in particular areas of interest, such as the skeleton or the brain. Abnormalities in the organ, as seen in a scan image, can help a doctor diagnose disease. Nuclear scintigraphy is also known as a nuclear medicine scan.

Medical imaging techniques such as nuclear scintigraphy allow doctors to see internal structures and detail without having to operate. Traditional imaging techniques like X-rays can give enough detail to highlight medical issues like broken bones, but nuclear medicine scans can be more sensitive. In the case of nuclear scintigraphy, the scanning machine alone cannot take a sensitive image of the patient.


The scanner can only read radioactivity, and create a image from this information. The injection that a patient receives delivers the necessary radioactivity into the body. Doctors inject different substances depending on where they want the radioactivity to settle. Options for nuclear scintigraphy procedures can cover different areas of the body including the brain, the circulatory system, and the lungs. Bone scintigraphy scans are also performed.

Once the radioactive substance is in the body, it moves around through the normal channels like the bloodstream. Each different injection has a particular affinity for a type of tissue, and it tends to congregate there. A doctor may have to allow as much as several hours for it to settle in the area of interest, such as on the bones. Once the appropriate amount of time has passed, the patient then undergoes the scan. The scanning machine reads the gamma radiation that the radioactive substance emits out of the body, and collates this information into a visual picture.

A doctor can then read this image and identify any abnormalities in the picture, where the radioactivity levels are unusual. High levels of radiation in vertebrae, for example, can indicate the presence of deterioration in the spinal cord. When the aim of the scan is to identify inefficiencies in fluid movement, such as blood to brain cells, then a area that has a lower than expected level of radiation can help a doctor pinpoint problem vessels. Veterinarians can also use nuclear scintigraphy on their patients. This can be helpful to identify issues in large animals such as causes of lameness in horses.

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