Nuclear radiology is a specialized area of radiology that uses very small amounts of radioactive materials, known as radiopharmaceuticals or isotopes, to examine the structure and function of organs. Since x-rays pass through soft tissue, such as intestines, muscles, and blood vessels, these contrast agents must be used to visualize certain parts of the body. Nuclear radiology procedures use the low-dose radioactive isotopes to trace the functioning of the lungs, kidneys, stomach, colon, endocrine and neurological systems. It also helps diagnose certain tumors, metastatic disease and infections in the body very early in the progression of a disease, such as thyroid cancer, at a time when there may be a more successful treatment.
Most nuclear radiology studies require the injection of an isotope with an immediate series of images being taken. Depending on the body tissue being examined, taking the images may be delayed by an amount of time specified by a radiologist. This imaging study is performed using dual-headed camera, known as a gamma camera.
When combined with CT, PET imaging provides anatomic and metabolic information from a single exam in a single system. PET and PET/CT are used primarily in the diagnosis and staging of cancer. The PET exam pinpoints metabolic activity in cells and the CT exam provides an anatomical reference. When these two scans are fused together, a physician can view metabolic changes in the proper anatomical context of a patient’s body.
Nuclear radiology specialists commonly diagnose or treat the following conditions:
- Aneurysms (weak spots in blood vessel walls)
- Blood cell disorders and inadequate functioning of organs, such as thyroid and pulmonary function deficiencies
- Initial diagnosis, staging or restaging of cancers
- Irregular or inadequate blood flow to various tissues
Nuclear radiology exams and procedures include:
- Bone scanning
- Cardiovascular imaging
- Positron emission tomography (PET) and PET/CT
- Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT)