Nuclear Medicine Imaging

Assessing Organ and Tissue Function

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Nuclear medicine imaging tests use small amounts of radioactive materials called radiotracers, a special camera, and a computer to help your doctor diagnose cancer, heart disease, neurological disorders, and other conditions. Unlike other types of imaging, nuclear medicine tests evaluate not just anatomy, but also organ and tissue function.

Our Nuclear Medicine Imaging Locations

How Does Nuclear Medicine Imaging Work?

A small amount of radiotracer is injected into your bloodstream, inhaled, or swallowed. The tracer gives off energy in the form of gamma rays and is tracked with a gamma camera as it moves through the body. The tracer eventually collects in the organ or tissue being examined. 

Why Do I Need a Nuclear Medicine Imaging Scan?

Nuclear medicine imaging is performed for several reasons, and there are distinct variations among the types of scans. Examples of nuclear medicine imaging tests include:

  • Gastric emptying studies to assess the ability of the stomach to empty.
  • Heart scans to identify abnormal blood flow to the heart, assess damage to the heart muscle after a heart attack, or measure heart function.
  • Lymph node mapping helps your doctor plan for a biopsy or surgery.
  • Lung scans to evaluate lung function or detect blood clots.
  • Bone scans to identify effects of injury, infection, or disease.
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The Nuclear Medicine Imaging Process

How you prepare for your nuclear medicine imaging test will depend on the type of test you are getting. For example, a gastric emptying study requires that you not eat or drink for four hours before your appointment. A kidney scan may require you to drink more fluids. My Duke Health (previously Duke MyChart) or your provider will give you detailed instructions on how to prepare for your scan and how long testing will take. 

Radiotracer Administration
Before your scan, you will receive a dose of radiotracer as an IV injection or by mouth, or it may be inhaled. The amount of time between receiving the tracer and your scan can range from a few minutes to a few days, depending on the type of test.

Nuclear Medicine Safety and Comfort
The tracer used for the scan does not have side effects and will not make you feel different. Your body will eliminate it quickly after the test. The gamma camera and other equipment do not emit any radiation. Tell your doctor if being in an enclosed space makes you anxious. You may be able to take a mild sedative to help you relax during the procedure.

During the Scan
Wear warm, comfortable clothes without zippers, buttons, or metal. Before the scan you will be asked to remove metal items, including jewelry, that may interfere with imaging, and you may change into a gown. You will lie on a table for your imaging test. Your technologist may ask you to hold your breath for short periods or change position during the scan. 

Getting Your Results

Once your scan is complete, your images are interpreted by a radiologist -- a doctor trained in medical image interpretation. Your report and images will be available through My Duke Health for you to discuss with your doctor. 

Since you will be able to access your results as soon as they are available, you may often see them in your chart before your doctor has had a chance to look at them and explain them to you. If you prefer not to see your results before your doctor, let them know. They can request a delay in sending your information to My Duke Health until you have the chance to talk with them.

Experts in Nuclear Medicine

A team of radiologists, medical physicists, and specially trained technologists and nurses work together to ensure your scan is safe and high-quality. We are accredited by the American College of Radiology (ACR), meaning we provide the highest level of safety and image quality. Our equipment also undergoes rigorous internal quality control, which exceeds even the high ACR standards. These accreditations and quality control programs demonstrate our commitment to providing you with the best experience possible.

Consistently Ranked Among the Nation’s Best Hospitals

Duke University Hospital is proud of our team and the exceptional care they provide. They are why we are once again recognized as the best hospital in North Carolina, and nationally ranked in 11 adult and 9 pediatric specialties by U.S. News & World Report for 2023–2024.

This page was medically reviewed on 04/21/2022 by