Patient’s Guide to Nuclear Medicine


If your doctor has requested a nuclear medicine test or “scan” for either you or your child, this page will help you understand what Nuclear Medicine is and what to expect. If you still have questions after reviewing this information, please call the nuclear medicine department where your test is scheduled (in Redding, call us at 225-8008). We want to do everything we can to help you understand the procedure so that you feel comfortable when you come in to see us. We also encourage you to get your information from Nuclear Medicine people, since they are the ones most familiar with the procedures, and because there is a lot of fear and mis-information because of the word “nuclear”.

This page address the following basic questions and concerns:

What is Nuclear Medicine?

Nuclear Medicine involves the use of radioactive materials (isotopes or radioisotopes or radiopharmaceuticals) to diagnose or treat medical conditions. We use very small amounts of radioactive materials (which have no harmful effect) to allow us to take “pictures” or “scans” of the area of your body that your doctor needs to know more about. Sometimes we use larger amounts to treat cancer or certain thyroid disorders. Former President Bush and Mrs. Bush both had such treatments.

Nuclear Medicine is Very Safe

Used in proper amounts, radioactive materials have been shown to be extremely safe in adults and children, and may even be used in pregnant women. The overall safety record of Nuclear Medicine is unmatched by any other medical field. Studies of over 100,000 patients showed no ill effects after 15-20 years following treatment utilizing radioactive materials. Each year, more than one million people in the United States undergo nuclear medicine tests without experiencing any negative side effects.

Nuclear Medicine Procedures – What to Expect

Under the supervision of a Nuclear Medicine physician, a Nuclear Medicine Technologist will perform the procedure. First, you will be given an injection in your arm, just like a blood test, although usually a smaller needle is used so it hurts less. The small amount of radioactive material injected allows us to take picture(s) of the area in question. Occasionally the radioactive material may be swallowed, inhaled, or rarely injected somewhere besides a vein. Next, depending on the type of test, you will usually wait between 15 minutes to four hours, occasionally longer, before we begin taking the pictures (“scans”). While you are waiting, you are free to do just about anything – read, talk, walk around, drive, eat, drink, etc. The scans or “pictures” usually take between 15 minutes to a little over an hour, sometimes longer. The scanning process does not hurt – there are usually no “funny” positions or changing your clothes. You simply lie still on a table for several of minutes for each picture. For some Nuclear Medicine tests it is important to drink plenty of fluids, and for some you should not eat for several hours before the test.

How Do I Prepare for My Test?

Unless you are told otherwise, you don’t need to do anything special before your test. You may eat breakfast and take any medication you normally take. The most common tests which might require you to skip breakfast or your regular medication are tests of the stomach or gall bladder and heart tests.  When your appointment is made, you will be told know how much time to allow for your procedure, and about any other preparation or restrictions which may apply.  You can read our preparation instructions here.

What Happens After My Test?

Following your test, your Nuclear Medicine physician will review the images to ensure they are the best they can be and that they answer the question(s) your doctor has to the best of our ability.  He may also briefly discuss your results with you if appropriate. A complete written report will be sent to your doctor. Because your doctor knows you and your medical condition and history, he/she can discuss the results with you in a more meaningful fashion. You are almost always able to return to your normal daily routine after the test – there are no effects of the small amounts of radioactive materials, so you will feel perfectly normal. Likewise the amounts are so small that there are no restrictions on your being around other people. You can essentially forget that you had your Nuclear Medicine test.

Special Considerations for Children

If at all possible, the child’s mother and/or father should be present during the procedure. We encourage parents to remain with their child for the entire test. Children are welcome to bring a stuffed animal or other special “cuddly,” and parents are encouraged to bring a book or something else to help pass the time. At children’s hospitals the Nuclear Medicine technologists and physicians have special training and experience in dealing with children and allaying their fears so that the best results can be obtained without causing undue pain, fear, or discomfort. Often, children’s hospitals will have videotapes and other things to help pass the time and help children hold still. Because young children often have difficulty remaining still for long periods of time, those under the age of three sometimes need to be sedated for the scanning process. When you make your appointment, you will be given special instructions and information if sedation is necessary.

Nuclear Medicine Procedures

Here is a sampling of the most common scans your doctor might order and what they can do for you:

  • Thyroid uptakes and scans are used to find over and under-active thyroid glands, and to determine if lumps (nodules) might be cancerous.
  • Bone scans find problems such as a tumor, infection, and trauma sooner than x-rays, and are used to evaluate bone pain, injuries, and many cancers.
  • Heart scans are most often used to determine if chest pain is a result of heart disease, evaluate the extent and severity of heart disease, judge the risk for major events, and are also used to monitor the pumping function of the heart.
  • Lung scans find blood clots in the lungs.
  • Kidney scans find blockages to drainage or blood flow, tumor, and infections of the kidney, and can tell if high blood pressure is because of a kidney problem. Scans can also check for bladder reflux.
  • Gallbladder scans help decide the need for surgery for abdominal pain.
  • Stomach/Bowel bleeding can be located with nuclear medicine scans.
  • Tumor/Abscess localization leads the way to finding the problem in difficult cases.
  • Nuclear Medicine Therapy is the quickest, easiest, cheapest, and most importantly, the safest of all ways to treat overactive thyroid glands (hyperthyroidism). It is the best form of treatment for most cancers of the thyroid, and may also be used for other cancers.


Nuclear Medicine Physician Expertise

It is important that the physician directing the Nuclear Medicine procedure has special training and experience so that when radioactive materials are administered, the information obtained is the best it can be.  At NMA, our physicians each have more than 25 years’ experience doing nothing but nuclear medicine.


Patient Forms

In preparation for your appointment with us, you may be asked to complete one or more of the following forms: