Guide to Nuclear Medicine Scans

What is a Nuclear Medicine Scan?

Nuclear medicine scans are a category of medical imaging that involves using a small amount of radioactive material to diagnose and determine the severity of a variety of conditions. 

There are several different types of nuclear medicine scans including a PET scan, Muga scan, thyroid scan and a bone scan. The type of scan you need may depend on what part of the body or condition your doctor wants to evaluate.

Regardless of which type of scan you have, you will be given a small amount of radioactive material, which may be referred to as a radiotracer or a radiopharmaceutical. 

The radiotracer distributes itself in the body and concentrates in the diseased areas. The organs, tissues and bones then emit gamma rays. A gamma camera inside the machine detects gamma rays and creates images of the body.

What to Expect During a Nuclear Medicine Scan

When you arrive for your nuclear medicine scan, the technologist will explain the procedure and ask you some standard questions. You may also be asked to change into a hospital gown.

Next, you will be given a radioactive tracer. Depending on the type of scan, the tracer may be injected into a vein, or you may be asked to swallow the material. 

The radioactive tracer needs time to be absorbed by your body. The amount of time it takes varies depending on the scan you are having. If the absorption time required is several hours, you can leave and come back as instructed. 

When you are ready for the scan, the tech will position you on a moveable table that slides into the machine. Depending on the scan, you may move in and out of the machine from head to toe or the machine may remain over a particular part of your body. The machine may also rotate around you. It’s important to remain as still as possible to get the best images. 

How Long Does a Nuclear Medicine Scan Take?

The amount of time it takes to have a nuclear medicine scan can vary. For example, it may take longer for the radioactive tracer to be absorbed for certain types of scans. In general, nuclear medicine scans can take a bit longer than a typical x-ray or CT scan. On average, a nuclear medicine scan takes anywhere from two to three hours.

Why is a Nuclear Medicine Scan Done?

A nuclear medicine scan is done to help your doctor diagnose or monitor a medical condition. Nuclear medicine scans don’t just create an image of a body part. The scans can pinpoint cellular activity to detect abnormalities at their earliest stage.

Nuclear medicine scans are useful in helping doctors diagnose various neurological conditions, detect tumors and monitor the spread of cancer. They can also identify bone injury or infection and determine heart function.  

Preparations Required by the Patient

Your doctor will provide you with specific instructions based on the type of scan you’re having. For example, certain nuclear medicine scans require you to fast for six to eight hours before the scan. Other scans, such as a bone scan, may require you to drink a certain amount of water to ensure you’re well hydrated. You may also be asked to avoid exercise for 24 hours depending on the scan.  


Does the tracer cause side effects? The radiotracer administered does not have any known side effects. The radiopharmaceutical used is carefully chosen to ensure minimal radiation exposure. In fact, the level of radiation exposure is similar to an x-ray.

Is a nuclear medicine scan painful? The only pain involved with a nuclear medicine scan is from the insertion of the needle to administer the radiotracer. The pain of a needle prick is usually considered minor. The scan itself is painless. You do have to lie still during the scan, which some people may find uncomfortable.

What happens after my scan? Unless otherwise instructed, you are free to eat, drink and resume normal activities after a nuclear medicine scan. After a radiologist reviews your scan, he will forward the results to your doctor.

Where are nuclear medicine scans done? Nuclear medicine scans are performed at hospitals and radiology centers. iRadiologyCare Inc. can assist you in finding a location in your area. 

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