Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine imaging provides doctors with information about both the structure and function of internal organs. It allows us to gather medical information that would otherwise be unavailable except through surgery or other more expensive and invasive diagnostic exams. Nuclear medicine imaging procedures often identify abnormalities very early in the disease process, long before many medical problems are apparent with other diagnostic exams.

Nuclear medicine uses very small amounts of radioactive materials (radiopharmaceuticals) to diagnose and treat disease. During imaging, special types of cameras detect the radiopharmaceuticals injected into your child’s body. These cameras work with computers to provide very precise pictures of the area of your child’s body being studied.

The amount of radiation in a typical nuclear imaging procedure is comparable to that received during a diagnostic x-ray. 

Frequently Asked Questions about Nuclear Medicine

Are nuclear medicine exams safe for my child?

Riley Hospital for Children Nuclear Medicine at Indiana University Health follows guidelines called Image Gently and ALARA (doses of radiation that are As Low As Reasonably Achievable). The doses we give your child are based on age and weight to minimize your child’s exposure to radiation.

Where does the radioactivity you use come from?

The radioactivity used by Riley Nuclear Medicine at IU Health comes from nuclear reactors located in Canada, Europe and Africa, or from cyclotrons located in the United States. The radioactivity is sent to local radiopharmacies where it is tagged to different radiopharmaceuticals. It is then dispensed in unit dose form which is delivered to our department.

Does my child have to have an IV (intravenous tube that allows access to a blood vessel)?

Many nuclear medicine exams require the use of an IV to inject the radiopharmaceutical. Our department has a transilluminator, which shines light through the skin and can help us locate veins. We also have a topical anesthetic spray that numbs your child’s skin temporarily and reduces the pain associated with IV placement.

Some nuclear exams require that your child eat or drink the radiopharmaceutical. In this case, the radiopharmaceutical is mixed with food (scrambled eggs, milk or baby formula) or given in a pill to be swallowed.

There are also exams that require the radiopharmaceutical to be inhaled into the lungs or injected through a bladder catheter.

Can I stay with my child during the exam?

Yes, we encourage parents to stay with their children for the duration of the exam.

How long do nuclear medicine exams last?

Some exams require a waiting period between injection and imaging. This wait time can range from two to 24 hours, depending on the type of exam.

Nuclear medicine images are not instant pictures like X-rays or CT (computed tomography) scans. The images are built slowly as radioactivity comes out of your child’s body and accumulates over time in a special detector. Imaging can take as little as one minute to as much as two hours, depending on the type of study. In many cases, images must be taken at different time intervals (for example, two hours apart, four hours apart, 24 hours apart).

Will my child be sedated for the exam?

In certain cases, especially for bone or MIBG scans (using metaiodobenzylguanidine, a form of iodine), we may use sedation or general anesthesia. This is done to reduce the possibility that your child will move during longer imaging studies.

What kinds of diseases can nuclear medicine exams diagnose?

Nuclear medicine exams can provide early diagnosis of many diseases and are frequently ordered by doctors in a variety of specialties, including:

  • Cardiology
  • Endocrinology
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Urology

Nuclear medicine exams can determine if organ systems are functioning properly, monitor the effects of surgery or medical treatments and identify tumors. These exams can:

  • Assess gallbladder function
  • Assess gastric motility (movement of food through the digestive system)
  • Assess kidney function
  • Assess thyroid function
  • Determine blood flow to the brain
  • Determine blood flow to the heart muscle
  • Determine how well kidney, heart and liver transplants are working
  • Determine the place in the brain where seizures start
  • Identify infection within bones
  • Locate fractures in bones before they can be seen on x-rays
  • Visualize tumors