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What Is Involved in a Nuclear Medicine Test?

Dan Harkins
Updated May 17, 2024
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A nuclear medicine test might be one of several tests a doctor may order in the diagnostic phase, when a thorough analysis of the symptoms can hopefully lead to an effective treatment plan. This procedure begins with tiny amounts of radioactive material, called radiopharmaceuticals, being swallowed, inhaled or injected — immediately prior to the scan or either an hour, a day or more ahead of time. The scan itself usually takes no more than an hour, with the patient typically lying on a table, and then images being recorded of the radioactivity emanating from the particular organ the compound is formulated to seek out. Then a camera for a nuclear medicine test will be repositioned to take images from several sides of the organ system being analyzed. For each type of suspected condition, a different radiopharmaceutical may be used that is specially attracted to a particular type of tissue or organ.

A relatively new form of nuclear medicine test is called the positron emission tomography (PET) scan. Enough images must be taken during the scan to create a computerized, three-dimensional model of the organ being studied. This requires a special camera to circle the patient during the test, which later will recreate these images into a model that can be analyzed by a technologist or physician to discover potential problems.

According to the American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT), a nuclear medicine test is known as an "inside-out" x-ray. Instead of radiation being beamed through a body for pictures to be taken, the radiation is emitted from the area of the body where trouble is suspected, and then pictures are taken. The ASRT asserts that this test is special due to its ability to record data not only about how an organ looks and how it is located but also about how well it is performing its duties. Among diagnostic tests, this is a unique characteristic.

A nuclear medicine test is designed to gauge the health and form of a range of body parts, each with a slightly different radiopharmaceutical and ingestion method. Individualized scans from the brain to the bones of the feet can be performed as well as many that test the major organs in between, from the thyroid glands, heart and lungs down to the stomach, gall bladder and liver. According to the ASRT, the test will administer no more radiation than is customarily delivered during an ordinary x-ray examination.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Dan Harkins
By Dan Harkins , Former Writer
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his journalism degree, he spent more than two decades honing his craft as a writer and editor for various publications. Dan’s debut novel showcases his storytelling skills and unique perspective by drawing readers into the story’s captivating narrative.

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Dan Harkins

Dan Harkins

Former Writer

Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his...
Learn more
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