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Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear Medicine is an innovative way to look inside your body using a radioactive liquid that you drink or that is injected into your body. It lets doctors see if your body's systems are working properly.

What is it like to have a nuclear medicine exam? How should I prepare?

It works as follows: A safe form of radioactive liquid is given by mouth or IV. A few hours later, you are examined by an instrument called a gamma camera, which measures the radiation as it travels through your body. The camera makes digital images based on these measurements.

The radioactive agents used do emit some radiation, but they have short half-lives, which means they quickly turn into harmless material. The radiation level is very low, similar to and in some cases less than x-ray tests.

There are several kinds of nuclear medicine exams, and each looks at a specific part of the body:

  • Bone scan - finds breaks, tumors, and other bone conditions that x-rays may miss. You will be given an injection, and within a few hours, technologists will be able to measure the effect of the agent on the bones.
  • Gallium scan - looks at how the heart, lungs, and blood vessels are working. You receive an injection of gallium and return two to five days later for imaging. Images may be taken of only a specific body part, or the doctor may look at your whole body.
  • Thyroid uptake scan - this exam checks to see if your thyroid gland is working well. You swallow a small amount of radioactive iodine and then come back the next day. This exam takes about an hour.
  • Cardiac studies - several kinds of scans that check the heart and blood vessels. One of the primary ways is a stress test. After the injection of a radioactive agent, you are measured right away. Then you exercise for a set amount of time and are measured again. You are then checked later, when you are at rest. This lets us watch blood flow around the heart during different states of activity and checks for blockages or coronary artery disease.
  • Gall bladder scan - checks the gallbladder for tumors or gallstones. This exam can be done within one day.

What is it like to have a nuclear medicine exam?

This depends greatly on the kind of exam required. In most cases, the test takes one to three hours from beginning to end. For some exams, you'll be given an injection or asked to swallow something in a short visit, and then come back at a later date for imaging. Some exams include having you go through a chamber like an MRI or CT scan machine, while others focus on a specific body area. In all cases, you'll need to hold still during the imaging.

Your results will be looked at by trained Nuclear Medicine Technologists, who will analyze the images created and share their findings with your doctor within a few days.

How should I prepare?

Talk to your doctor about the best way to prepare. In many cases, you'll be asked to avoid food after midnight the day of the test. For stress tests, you'll be asked to avoid caffeine and you may need to stop taking your medications. Check with your doctor about what you should do.

Diabetics, pregnant women, and nursing mothers should talk to their doctor before having nuclear medicine imaging.

Radiology infoFor additional information about your test please visit the RadiologyInfo website.

Referral information for physicians: You can make a referral for your patients by calling 617-665-1298.

Contact Us
Cambridge Hospital Campus
1493 Cambridge St
Cambridge, MA 02139

Outpatient Hours:

Mon-Fri: 7:00am – 4:00pm

Whidden Hospital Campus
103 Garland St
Everett, MA 02149

Outpatient Hours:

Mon-Fri: 7:30am–4:00pm

To Schedule an Appointment:
Phone: 617-665-1298

Please note: to schedule an appointment, you must have a referral order from a primary care physician.