Nuclear medicine is a subject about which patients are often unaware or uninformed. If a physician mentions it, then it may just sound like scary medical jargon to a patient. Nuclear medicine often times frightens patients in fear of it being dangerous. However, it is a form of medicine that is becoming more and more common and the numerous benefits are being explored.
According to Dr. Catherine Phillips, “nuclear medicine has been around for decades, but more technological advancements are being made every day.”Before we get into the pros and cons, it is important to answer the question ‘what is nuclear medicine?’
What is Nuclear Medicine?
Nuclear medicine is a multidisciplinary branch of medicine but is most closely related to radiology and diagnostic, medical imaging. Nuclear medicine tests and treatments involve the use of small amounts of radioactive material in order to diagnose and determine the severity of a variety of conditions and diseases. Among these conditions are many types of heart diseases, cancers, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and neurological disorders. Let’s take a look at the two main types of nuclear medicine: diagnostic and therapeutic.
When is Nuclear Medicine used?
Diagnostic nuclear medicine deals with PET (positron emission tomography) scans and SPECT (single photon emission tomography) scans. In many cases, these tests are combined with CT (computed tomography) tests in order to create a scan that is more accurate and more precise. The way these diagnostic tests work is that a small amount of radioactive material called a radiotracer is ingested (injected, swallowed, or inhaled as a gas), and eventually this radiotracer accumulates in the organ or body part that is being examined.
The radioactive emissions from the tracer are then detected by special cameras in the machines that then provides in-depth pictures and molecular information. In many ways, the nuclear medicine imaging tests are the most sophisticated and accurate diagnostic tests available.
Therapeutic nuclear procedures include radioactive iodine (I-131) therapy and radioimmunotherapy. Radioimmunotherapy combines radiation therapy and with the targeting ability of immunotherapy. Immunotherapy mimics cellular activity in the body’s immune system, so the radiation is then able to target affected areas very precisely. Therapeutic nuclear medicine is typically used for severe types of cancers and diseases that affect the thyroid gland.
What are the risks of Nuclear Medicine?
The name ‘nuclear medicine’ and words such as radiation and radioactive can often be seen as scary to patients. Many patients may wonder, ‘is nuclear medicine dangerous?’ However, it is impossible to look at the risks without looking at the benefits. While nuclear medicine tests do expose patients to radiation, which can be dangerous, the radiotracers use such small amounts of radioactive materials that the potential benefits typically far outweigh the potential risks.
The amount of radiation that a patient is exposed to is similar to those of other diagnostic scans, and even in a patient's day to day, they are always exposed to certain small amounts of radiation. However, a woman should always tell their doctor if they are pregnant or breastfeeding so that they doctor can determine whether or not a certain nuclear medicine test is safe for the baby.
What are the benefits of Nuclear Medicine?
Nuclear medicine risks are small, and the benefits are invaluable. These tests provide functional and anatomic information that is unattainable in other procedures. Oftentimes, nuclear medicine tests provide doctors with the most useful diagnostic information, and the most helpful information to determine a course of treatment. PET scans can tell whether tumors are malignant or benign and can prevent a patient from getting a more dangerous or more costly surgery. These tests also have the ability to detect diseases in their earliest stages, and sometimes before the diseases even cause symptoms.
To learn more about the risks and benefits of nuclear medicine you can visit the American Cancer Society’s website or any verified radiological society.