What Is Nuclear Medicine and How Does It Work?

Nuclear medicine is a valuable tool for the diagnosis of disease. Being non-invasive and cost-effective it can provide details of the functioning of an organ as well as the organ structure allowing for the diagnosis of certain medical conditions and diseases much earlier than other imaging techniques. It’s increasingly valuable for early detection, treatment, and prevention of a number of medical conditions including brain tumors and stroke evaluation, blood cell disorders, breast cancer, heart disease, kidney function, thyroid function, and much more.

How Nuclear Medicine Works

Nuclear medicineNuclear medicine works by introducing a low-level radioactive chemical, or radiotracer, into the body by intravenous injection, inhalation, or ingestion. The radiotracer is specially formulated to be temporarily accumulated in the specific organ or tissues to be examined. The radiotracer emits a gamma ray signal that is picked up and read by a gamma camera to result in an image that tells the story of the functioning of the organ. “Hot spots” show a larger accumulation of radiotracer showing increased activity. “Cold spots” can demonstrate reduced activity. Nuclear medicine can provide information that other imaging techniques will miss by examining tissues on a molecular level.

The level of radiation involved in a nuclear medicine procedure is typically much lower than the radiation received from a conventional X-ray making these procedures very safe. The procedures are painless beyond the discomfort of the intravenous injection when it is needed to introduce the radiotracer and there are very rarely any side effects experienced. Of all medical tests, nuclear medicine tests are among the last one needs to fear or dread if one is ordered by your doctor.

Students in nuclear medicine programs learn about the biological effects of exposure to radiation, computer applications, imaging techniques, physical sciences and more. You will likely need to pass a licensing exam upon graduation to legally work in this field, although this is not required in every state. Your degree or certificate must also come from an institution that is accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Education Programs. After fulfilling these requirements, nuclear medicine technologists typically earn between $48,720 and $67,460 annually, although this varies based on location, experience, and other factors.