Nuclear imaging tests are noninvasive procedures that help your doctor diagnose and evaluate medical conditions. In these tests, you receive a very small amount of a safe radioactive material designed to go to a specific place in your body. Then, a special camera—a gamma camera— tracks the path of the material, called a radiotracer, to show how your organs and tissues work.
Examples of common nuclear medicine tests include:
- Bone scans to evaluate pain or look for metastases
- Scans to determine how well the kidneys are working or if they are obstructed
- Scans of the liver and gallbladder to evaluate abdominal pain
- Scans of the abdomen to evaluate bleeding from the rectum
- Scans of the lungs to evaluate shortness of breath
- Scans to determine how rapidly food passes through the stomach
- Scans of the neck to look at the thyroid or parathyroid glands
Nuclear medicine techniques also can be used to treat some conditions, including overactive thyroid gland and certain types of cancer.
When you choose UNC Medical Center for your nuclear medicine procedure, you benefit from our experience and expertise. We perform procedures for approximately 12,000 patients every year; about 40 percent are people with heart conditions. All of our physicians have subspecialty training in nuclear medicine, and all of our scanners are accredited by the American College of Radiology.
Advanced Nuclear Imaging Technology
PET and SPECT scanners create three-dimension images by taking multiple scans of your body at different angles with gamma cameras, but they use different types of radiotracers. The type of scan you receive will depend on your specific condition.
We also offer combination PET/CT, PET/MRI, and SPECT/CT scans. These tests combine a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MR) scan in the same exam, providing more precise information to help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis.
When Are PET and SPECT scans used?
Nuclear imaging tests are designed to show how organs and tissues are functioning. The procedures can help your doctor accurately diagnose a condition or tell how well a treatment is working. Your doctor may order a PET or SPECT scan to:
- Check brain function and diagnose brain disorders
- Diagnose cancer and/or see how it’s responding to treatment
- Evaluate chest pain and heart disease
- Evaluate bone conditions, including broken bones
- Evaluate thyroid or parathyroid disorders
- Evaluate liver disease
Tell your doctor if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. He or she will tell you if it’s OK to get a nuclear imaging test.
Nuclear Imaging Scan: What to Expect
You’ll receive specific instructions on how to prepare for your procedure. Follow them carefully to help your doctor get the best, most accurate images. Before your scan, you’ll be asked to receive an injection, swallow or inhale a radiotracer. Depending on your specific test, you may need to wait a few minutes or a few days for the tracer to travel through your body. When it’s time to take the images, you’ll be positioned on an examination table and a scanner will take a series of images. Some machines rotate around you; others may require you change positions between images. You’ll need to stay very still while pictures are being taken to avoid blurry images. Some exams take as little as a half-hour; others are conducted over several days.
Your Nuclear Imaging Results
A radiologist will interpret your results and give a report to your doctor. Your doctor will share the results with you and discuss any follow-up care. Nuclear Medicine Therapies at UNC Medical Center When treating disease, nuclear medicine relies on techniques similar to those used to diagnose medical conditions. Nuclear medicine therapies employ radioactive substances that target a certain part of your body. Our nuclear medicine specialist will work with your doctor to plan the therapy that is best for you. Examples of nuclear medicine therapies include:
- Radioiodine therapy to treat hyperthyroidism or thyroid cancer
- Bone pain palliation therapy – Helps relieve bone pain in cancer patients
- Radioimmunotherapy (RIT) – Designed to deliver radiation directly to certain tumors
- Radiolabeled microsphere therapy for treating liver tumors, in conjunction with interventional radiology