Nuclear medicine is a medical speciality that uses small amounts of radioactive substances to look at what is happening the body, to identify problems and in some cases, provide treatment (for example overactive thyroid, joint problems and some cancers. Pictures are taken which allow problems to be diagnosed, prevented and sometimes treated.
One of the most exciting factors about nuclear medicine is that it enables professionals to see what is actually happening inside the body, not just the physical changes that have already occurred. For example, nuclear medicine techniques can produce images of the heart ‘in action’ that reveal if and where the blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced as well as whether or not those areas of the heart are still alive.
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What is nuclear medicine?
Lots of different types of people work in nuclear medicine, all with different skills and training.
Technicians & Radiographers
The British Nuclear Medicine Society is the specialist society for all of these professions. Further information?
Nuclear medicine covers a range of investigations and treatments and to give a flavour of this here are some examples:
Bone scans – following a small injection of a radioactive tracer, pictures are taken with a special camera (Gamma Camera), which look at the uptake of the tracer in the bones.
This can show areas of increased bone turnover for example if the bone is broken, or areas of cancerous deposits. The images give information about physiology, rather
than anatomy – as seen on X-rays. Radioactivity injected into joints can treat some forms of arthritis.
Heart Scans- again looking at function rather anatomy. Here radioactivity has been injected whilst the patient is walking on a treadmill to stress the heart, and shows areas of the heart muscle with little blood flow (or uptake of radioactivity). Resting images taken later show that the muscle is alive, as the blood flow (or radioactivity) normalises.
Thyroid scans and treatment – radioactive iodine can be used both to diagnose and treat overactive thyroid disease.
PET and PET/CT
One of the newest and most exciting developments in nuclear medicine is PET and PET/CT scanning. PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans use short-lived radioactive substances as markers for metabolic processes. Images are taken while these tracers are in the body so that areas of increased metabolism can be seen. PET scans can be combined with simultaneous CT (Computerised Tomography) scans which use computers to assemble a series of X-ray images taken of the body from various angles to give highly detailed cross-sectional or slice-like images of the body. This technique allows the findings about the function of the body from the PET scan to be located onto an exceptionally precise anatomical image, greatly aiding both diagnosis and treatment.
Nuclear medicine is a specialised medical discipline that offers a very safe and non-invasive way of finding out what is wrong with a patient. It often allows earlier diagnoses to be made and can also be used as a therapeutic treatment in its own right.