Nuclear medicine is specialized medical care that uses tiny amounts of radioactive material to diagnose or treat disease. Most commonly, the radioactive material is used to produce images of the inside of the body.
When nuclear medicine is used for imaging, tiny amounts of radioactive material are mixed into medicine that is injected, swallowed or inhaled. These medications are called radiopharmaceuticals or radiotracers. The medication goes to the part of the body that is being examined, where it emits a kind of invisible energy called gamma waves. Special cameras can take photographs or video of those gamma waves, so they also take an image of the body part where the medication is. Videos can show how the medicine is being processed by the body.
What makes nuclear medicine so useful is that it is extremely accurate. The images taken with nuclear medicine are incredibly precise, providing images down to the molecular level, so they can show disease at its earliest stages. Nuclear medicine can also show the function of body parts instead of just their structure: it can be used to see how well a heart is beating or how much oxygen lungs are holding. It is a way for doctors to see inside the body without the risks of surgery.
The word 'radioactive' can make some patients uneasy, but nuclear medicine is very safe. The amount of radiation used is very small, less than a person usually receives from simply standing outside during a normal year. It has been used successfully for more than sixty years, and is painless.
Sometimes nuclear medicine can be used not just to diagnose disease, but also to treat it. Hyperthyroidism is sometimes treated with radioactive iodine, and certain cancers are sometimes treated with targeted radiation or radioactive medications.
Nuclear medicine provides an enormous amount of information that is not available any other way. It helps patients avoid exploratory surgeries or unnecessary treatments, and it helps physicians quickly decide on the best care.