During a radionuclide scan, a small amount of a radionuclide attached to another substance (together, called a radioactive tracer) is administered, usually by injection. The radionuclide gives off small amounts of radiation that is measured during the scan to create images. Unlike other types of medical imaging, radionuclide scanning can sometimes provide information about how a tissue is functioning, as well as what it looks like.
(See also Overview of Imaging Tests Overview of Imaging Tests Imaging tests provide a picture of the body’s interior—of the whole body or part of it. Imaging helps doctors diagnose a disorder, determine how severe the disorder is, and monitor people after... read more .)
Procedure for Radionuclide Scanning
Labeling with a radionuclide
For scanning, a radionuclide is used to label a substance that accumulates in a specific part of the body. Different substances are used depending on which part of the body is to be evaluated.
A substance may accumulate because the body uses (metabolizes) it, as for the following:
Diphosphonate accumulates where bone is repairing or rebuilding itself.
Or a substance may abnormally accumulate in a specific area, as for the following:
Red blood cells accumulate in the intestine when the intestine is bleeding rapidly.
White blood cells accumulate in areas that are inflamed or infected.
Tracking the radionuclide
The combination of the radionuclide and the substance it labels is called a radioactive tracer. With imaging, doctors can see where the tracer collects and gives off radiation, which is detected by special scanners or cameras, such as a gamma camera. The camera produces a flat image of where the tracer collects. Sometimes a computer analyzes the radiation to produce a series of 2-dimensional images that look like slices of the body.
Usually, the tracer is injected in a vein, but for some tests, the tracer is swallowed, inhaled, or injected under the skin (subcutaneously) or into the joint. Imaging is done after the tracer has had time to move to the target tissues (which may be almost immediately or take up to several hours).
Before, during, and after the procedure
Before some tests (such as a gallbladder scan), the person is asked to refrain from eating and drinking for several hours. Clothing does not usually need to be removed.
The person must lie still during the scanning, which usually takes about 15 minutes. However, sometimes a scan needs to be repeated after a time, often hours later.
After the test, drinking extra fluids to help the body eliminate the radionuclide is recommended. Normal activities can be resumed immediately.
A radionuclide in the body can sometimes set off radioactivity detectors that are used for security purposes. Detectors may be carried by police or be in place around transportation centers and in other high-security areas. How long the radionuclide can set off detectors varies depending on the radionuclide but is typically a few days or less. To prevent problems with security, a doctor often gives people a note documenting that they have had radionuclide scanning.
Uses of Radionuclide Scanning
Radionuclide scanning can be used to evaluate many parts of the body: thyroid gland, liver and gallbladder, lungs, urinary tract, bone, brain, and certain blood vessels.
Because the body metabolizes many of the substances (such as iodine) used to label the radionuclide, radionuclide scanning can sometimes provide information about how a tissue is functioning, as well as what it looks like.
Various radionuclides are used to image different parts of the body or types of disorders, as for the following:
Blood flow to the heart: Thallium Radionuclide Imaging of the Heart In radionuclide imaging, a tiny amount of a radioactive substance (radionuclide), called a tracer, is injected into a vein. The amount of radiation the person receives from the radionuclide... read more is used to show blood flow through the arteries that carry blood to the heart. Thus, it can help doctors evaluate coronary artery disease Overview of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) Coronary artery disease is a condition in which the blood supply to the heart muscle is partially or completely blocked. The heart muscle needs a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood. The coronary... read more . To determine how the heart functions when it is working hard, doctors sometimes use thallium during stress testing Stress Testing Stressing the heart (by exercise or by use of stimulant drugs to make the heart beat faster and more forcibly) can help identify coronary artery disease. In coronary artery disease, blood flow... read more , usually by having the person walk or run on a treadmill. This test may also indicate how well the heart is pumping. The test can be done after a heart attack to help doctors estimate prognosis.
Bone: Because technetium Bone scanning A doctor can often diagnose a musculoskeletal disorder based on the history and the results of a physical examination. Laboratory tests, imaging tests, or other diagnostic procedures are sometimes... read more tracer collects in bone, it is used to image the skeleton. It is used to check for cancer that has spread (metastasized) to bone and for bone infections.
Inflammation: Technetium or other radionuclides are used to label white blood cells, which gather at sites of inflammation or infection. This test helps doctors identify inflammation and infection.
Bleeding: Technetium is used to label red blood cells. This test helps doctors locate bleeding in the intestine.
Gallbladder and bile ducts: Iminodiacetic acid is labeled. The liver handles this radionuclide as it would bile Overview of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disorders The liver produces bile, a greenish yellow, thick, sticky fluid. Bile aids digestion by making cholesterol, fats, and fat-soluble vitamins easier to absorb from the intestine. Bile also helps... read more . Thus, iminodiacetic acid collects where bile collects. This test is used to check for blockages in bile ducts, bile leaks, and gallbladder disorders.
Radionuclide scanning is also used to check for certain cancers, such as lung cancer that has spread to the liver, thyroid cancer Thyroid Cancer The cause of thyroid cancer is not known, but the thyroid gland is very sensitive to radiation, which may cause cancerous changes. Thyroid cancer is more common among people who were treated... read more , and colorectal cancer Colorectal Cancer Family history and some dietary factors (low fiber, high fat) increase a person’s risk of colorectal cancer. Typical symptoms include bleeding during a bowel movement, fatigue, and weakness... read more .
Variations of Radionuclide Scanning
Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT)
SPECT is similar to computed tomography but uses radionuclide gamma rays rather than x-rays.
For SPECT, the person lies on a motorized table. A rotating gamma camera takes images from many different angles (tomograms), each representing a slice of the body, and a computer is used to construct them into 2- and 3-dimensional images. These images help doctors more precisely locate structures and abnormalities.
Depending on the area being evaluated, people may be asked to restrict what they eat or drink before the test. The test usually takes 30 to 90 minutes.
Disadvantages of Radionuclide Scanning
The amount of radiation exposure from radionuclide scanning depends on which radionuclide is used and how much is used. For example, with a lung scan, the dose is similar to that used in about 100 single-view chest x-rays. Other scans may involve more or less radiation.
Radionuclide scanning can take hours to do because of the need to wait between injection and scan to give the radionuclide time to reach the target tissue.
Radionuclide scanning images are not as precise as those of x-rays X-Rays X-rays are a type of medical imaging that use very low-dose radiation waves to take pictures of bones and soft tissues. X-rays may be used alone (conventional x-ray imaging) or combined with... read more , computed tomography Computed Tomography (CT) Computed tomography (CT) is a type of medical imaging that combines a series of x-rays to create cross-sectional, detailed images of internal structures. In computed tomography (CT), which used... read more (CT), magnetic resonance imaging Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of medical imaging that uses a strong magnetic field and very high frequency radio waves to produce highly detailed images. During an MRI, a computer... read more (MRI), and many other imaging studies.
Because the radiation can affect a fetus Radiation risk during pregnancy Imaging tests that use radiation, usually x-rays, are a valuable tool in diagnosis, but exposure to radiation has some risks (see also Radiation Injury). Different diagnostic tests require different... read more , women who are pregnant or may be pregnant should tell their doctor.