What Is a Nuclear Medicine Scan and Why Is It Used?
In TV medical dramas, there may be a scene where a patient will go through a series of tests. One of these tests may have the TV patient injected with a needle and then placed in a machine, which digitalizes the patient’s internal organs into a picture on a computer screen where the TV doctors where doctors will gather around to discuss the findings. While not always correct in its portrayal, it is an easily accessible example of what nuclear medicine scans are. Nuclear medicine is on the rise as more technology is created and made available to hospitals and patients. Medical professionals may use nuclear scans to identify and treat specific illnesses and other ailments. The use of nuclear medicine and scanning systems are important in helping efficiently diagnose patients and provide better care.
What Is a Nuclear Scan?
A nuclear scan uses specially designed cameras and radioactive tracers to procure an image of a disease and track its progress through treatment. Like CT scans, nuclear scans take images of the inside of a patient’s body to detect abnormalities and other ailments. However, nuclear scan images are much more detailed due to the radioactive tracers or radiopharmaceuticals used in the process.
Radioactive tracers are carrier molecules bonded to a radioactive atom that is either injected into or ingested by the patient. These molecules can interact with the patient’s internal body structure to trace and study the disease in order to help doctors began a treatment plan fitted to the information seen.
What Are Some Types of Nuclear Scans?
There are multiple nuclear scans a medical professional may require a patient to have done. Yet, the type of nuclear scans available depend on the suspected diagnosis, as well as the technology and machinery the hospital has. Some differences between scans may also be the type of radioactive tracer that is used, which is decided based on the medical professionals’ decisions to what type of disease it might be.
Some of the more common nuclear scans are:
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET scan): Full body scan that can detect masses of tissue that may be cancerous, tumors, and other growths by using radioactive tracers to highlight them. The scanning device is large, and the patient could liken it to lying down on a bottom bunkbed with two walls on either side.
- Single Proton Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT scan): This scan is a 3D imaging of the patient’s body at different angles. The cameras used in this scan have gamma detectors that move in a circle around the patient who is lying still during the scan.
- Bone Density Scans: Similar to an X-ray scan and is used to illustrate a patient’s decrease or increase in bone strength and density.
Why Is Nuclear Medicine Used and What Are Its Advantages?
Nuclear medicine scans are not given out as the primary action. If a patient meets a certain number of symptoms or has undergone treatments without positive outcomes, further testing, such as SPECT or PET scans — which are types of nuclear scans — will be done to pinpoint and narrow the diagnosis and treatment.
Medical professionals may use nuclear scans for an in-depth look into the functions of a specific internal body organ such as a scans of tumor growth, which are more detailed and accurate than other testing alternatives. The risk in using radioactive tracers and the technology is quite small and nuclear medicine professionals strive to keep radiation exposure to the lowest levels possible for patients.
The advantages of nuclear medicine include:
- Highly detailed imaging and more accurate than other medical technology for a complete diagnosis
- Ability to monitor disease and interact with internal body structures that have disease
- Can track heart disease and cancers within the body
- Provides 3-D images to evaluate and study