Nuclear Medicine

What is Nuclear Medicine?

While the name may sound scary, nuclear medicine is a very safe and painless form of diagnostic testing. Nuclear medicine imaging is unique because it provides both anatomical and physiological information about internal organs. This means, the images show “what the organ looks like”, as well as, “how the organ is functioning”.  Nuclear medicine allows Radiologists to visualize organ function at the cellular level. Because disease begins with microscopic cell changes, nuclear medicine has the potential to identify disease in an earlier, more treatable stage- often before other tests are able to reveal abnormalities.

How does it work?

Nuclear medicine uses very small amounts of radioactive medicine (called radiotracers) to look at your internal organs and see how they are working. The radiotracer is most often injected into a vein or IV in your hand or arm. The radiotracer travels to specific target organs in the body-giving off gamma rays that can be detected by special cameras. A computer is then used to reconstruct pictures of the area of the body being imaged.

Common Nuclear Medicine procedures include:

Bone Scan

This procedure commonly ordered to detect areas of abnormal bone growth due to fractures, tumors, infection, or other bone diseases.

A whole-body bone scan takes around 3-4 hours, which includes two separate visits. In the first visit you will be given an injection of a radioactive isotope into a vein in your arm. The isotope takes 2-3 hours to circulate through your body and get absorbed in the bone. You will be given a time to return to the Nuclear Medicine Department 2-3 hours after the injection. When you arrive for the second part, you will lie on an imaging table as you are scanned from head to toe.


If you’re having problems with your gallbladder, your doctor may want you to have a special test called a hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scan.  This scan shows how well your gallbladder is working.  During this test, a radioactive isotope is injected into a vein in your arm.  A special camera  will be positioned over your abdomen to take pictures of the isotope as it travels through your liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, and small intestine.

Nuclear Stress Test

The test can show the size of the heart’s chambers, how well the heart is pumping blood, and whether the heart has any damaged or dead muscle. Nuclear stress tests can also give doctors information about your arteries and whether they might be narrowed or blocked because of coronary artery disease.

During a nuclear stress test, you will have two pictures of your heart taken -one while you are resting and one after you have exercised.  To get the pictures, a small amount of a radioactive isotope is injected into a vein in your arm.  As you lie on a table, a special camera will rotate around your chest, taking 3 dimensional images of your heart.

There are two types of nuclear stress tests, one that is used in conjunction with walking on a treadmill (exercise stress test) and one that is used in conjunction with medication (pharmacologic stress test). A pharmacologic stress test is used when the physician has determined that exercise on a treadmill is not an appropriate choice due to the patient's medical or physical condition.

Gastric Emptying Study

A Gastric Emptying Study is a test to determine the time is takes a meal to move through a person’s stomach. It is typically ordered for patients with frequent nausea and/or vomiting, bloating, abdominal pain and those who feel full after eating very little.

This test takes 4-5 hours to complete. For the test, you will be given a meal to eat. The normal meal is 2 scrambled eggs, 2 pieces of toast with jam, and 6 oz. of water. In the scrambled eggs will be a few drops of a radioactive isotope. This isotope will not make the eggs taste or look any different; it just allows us to see your stomach under with our imaging camera. After you consume this meal a one-minute image of your stomach will be taken. You will be allowed to leave the department with a time to return in 1, 2, 3 and 4 hours later. Each time you return the technologist will take a one-minute image of your stomach.