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Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical imaging that uses small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose or treat a variety of diseases, including many types of cancers, heart disease and certain other abnormalities within the body. Nuclear imaging determines the cause of the medical problem based on the function of the organ, tissue or bone. This is how nuclear imaging differs from an X-ray, ultrasound or any other diagnostic test that determines the presence of disease based on structural appearance.
Nuclear medicine or radionuclide imaging procedures are noninvasive and usually painless medical tests that help physicians diagnose medical conditions. These imaging scans use radioactive materials called radiopharmaceuticals or radiotracers.
Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam you are undergoing, the radiotracer is either injected into a vein, swallowed or inhaled as a gas and eventually accumulates in the organ or area of your body being examined, where it gives off energy in the form of gamma rays. This energy is detected by a device called a gamma camera, a (positron emission tomography) PET scanner and/or probe. These devices work together with a computer to measure the amount of radiotracer absorbed by your body and to produce special pictures offering details on both the structure and function of organs and tissues.
In some centers, nuclear medicine images can be superimposed with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to produce special views, a practice known as image fusion or co-registration. These views allow the information from two different studies to be correlated and interpreted on one image, leading to more precise information and accurate diagnoses. In addition, manufacturers are now making PET/CT units that are able to perform both imaging studies at the same time.
Millions of nuclear imaging tests are performed each year in the United States alone. Nuclear imaging tests (also known as scans, examinations, or procedures) are safe and painless.