Nuclear Medicine Scans Printer Friendly Format [DOC]

Other common names:          

  • Nuclear Imaging  
  • Radionuclide Imaging
  • Gallium Scan          
  • Bone scan with Technetium   
  • Thallium Scan           
  • FDG-PET Scan (see PET info)
  • SPECT (Single-photon emission computed tomography)

Description:  Nuclear scans use radioactive drugs called tracers to highlight tissues in the body. The tracer releases low levels of radiation.  Body tissue affected by certain diseases, such as cancer, may absorb more or less of the tracer than normal tissue. Depending on the type of scan performed, a tumor may show up as a “hot spot” (area that absorbs more of the tracer) or as a “cold spot” (area that absorbs less of the tracer).  A nuclear imaging camera picks up the signals from the tracer and takes a picture of the area. A computer processes the signals and transforms them into two- and three-dimensional images, sometimes with color added for clarity. Sometimes nuclear scans are combined with a CT scan.

Examples of Uses:     These scans can be used to view, monitor, or diagnose:

        • tumors 
        • aneurysms (weak spot in blood vessel walls)
        • irregular blood flow
        • organ function

Preparation:  There is usually no special preparation needed for a nuclear scan. Your doctor will provide any specific instructions needed for your exam.

During the Exam:  Because there are several types of nuclear scans, the procedure varies. Prior to your scan, you will be given a radiopharmaceutical as a tracer, either orally (drinking a contrast liquid) or via intravenous (IV) injection. Imaging may be done immediately, or you may be asked to return several hours or days later, depending on the type of scan being performed. For most nuclear scans, you will lie on a table. A nuclear imaging camera will be used to take the image of the area being examined. The camera may be suspended from a frame, under the exam table, or in a large donut-shaped machine, similar to a CT scanner.

Time Required:  20 to 45 minutes.

Noise During Exam:  Low-level clicking or buzzing noises.

Space During Exam:  If your exam involves a CT scanner, you will lie on a narrow table that slides into the circular opening of the scanner.  The size of the opening is usually 27 to 30 inches. How much space you have around you will depend on your body size and the scanner used.  If your exam does not involve a CT scanner, you will lie on a table with ample room around you.


  • The functional information obtained by nuclear medicine scans is unique and unavailable using other types of imaging. For many diseases, nuclear scans provide the most useful information required to make a diagnosis and determine the most appropriate treatment, if any.
  • Nuclear scans are much less traumatic than exploratory surgery.

Although a tracer is used during nuclear scans, the dose is very small. The amount of radiation that you are exposed to is low and short-lived.  Nuclear medicine has been used for more than five decades, and there are no long-term adverse effects from such low-dose studies.  There are, however, possible risks from the tracer:

  • A nuclear scan with a tracer may expose the fetus of a pregnant woman or the infant of a nursing mother to radiation. If you are pregnant or nursing, please discuss your exam with your doctor.
  • There is a rare risk of a major allergic reaction to the tracer.

A radiologist, who is a physician with specialized training in nuclear medicine, will interpret the results of your nuclear scan and forward a report to your personal physician. It usually takes a day or so to interpret, report, and deliver the results. Contact your physician for information on the results of your nuclear scan.

For further info: http://www.radiologyinfo.org/


A Nuclear Medicine Scanner

 A Nuclear Medicine Scan

The development of lay imaging descriptions is a project of the 
American College of Radiology Imaging Network
Patient Advocacy Committee.