The term Nuclear Medicine can trigger a wide variety of images in your head. However, the truth is much less dramatic. If you have a referral to a Nuclear Medicine department, it's because your doctor wants very detailed information about how your body is functioning. The specialists in the Nuclear Medicine department use advanced radiology equipment to study the status of various parts of your body, as described below. 

What Is Nuclear Medicine? 

X-rays pass through tissue without leaving a trace. Therefore, studying intestines, muscles and blood vessels is difficult using a standard X-ray. Nuclear medicine is a particular type of radiology that uses a tiny amount of radioactive materials, called nuclear tracers, to examine organ functions and structure using a specialized camera to scan the progress of the tracer through the patient's body. 

Doctors who specialize in nuclear medicine are called nuclear medicine radiologists, nuclear radiologists or nuclear medicine specialists. 

Reasons to See a Nuclear Medicine Radiologist 

Your primary care physician will refer you to a nuclear medicine radiologist based on your symptoms. These are some of the more common tests. 

  • Renal Scans: If your doctor suspects that you may have a problem with your kidneys, a renal scan will identify irregular kidney functions or obstructions as the blood flows through your kidneys. 
  • Thyroid Scans: If your doctor suspects that there may be a thyroid nodule or mass present, the scan will evaluate the functioning of your thyroid. 
  • Bone Scans: These scans will identify abnormal changes in your joints that may be due to, for example, arthritis. Bone scans are also used to find bone diseases or cancerous tumors and to determine the cause of inflammation or pain in your bones. 
  • Gallium Scans: This particular type of nuclear scan uses a radioactive material called gallium. It's most often used to diagnose infections, tumors and abscesses. 
  • Heart Scans: If your doctor suspects that you have heart problems, a heart scan can find abnormal blood flow, the amount of damage after a heart attack and measure how efficiently the heart is operating. 
  • Brain Scans: This type of scan is most commonly used to find problems in the brain or the circulation of blood to the brain. 
  • Breast Scans: If your mammogram hasn't provided enough information to let your doctor identify abnormal or cancerous tissue in your breast, you may be referred for a breast scan. 

In some cases, a nuclear medicine radiologist may treat a condition. For example, a patient with cancer of the thyroid gland may be treated with radioactive iodine therapy. The radiologist may also use radioactive antibodies to treat certain kinds of lymphoma or prostate cancer. 

What Does a Nuclear Medicine Radiologist Do? 

Typically, a nuclear medicine radiologist performs different types of scans and provides the results to the doctor who requested the tests. The radiologist administers the nuclear trace to the patient, performs the scan, interprets the results and provides the information to your doctor. 

You'll typically hear about two types of scans, a Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) or a Positron Emission Tomography (PET). Both technologies produce a three-dimensional image of internal organs. 

If your doctor refers you for a SPECT or PET scan, there may be specific requirements, but in general, here's what you will experience. 

You'll take the nuclear tracer. You may take it by mouth a specific amount of time before the scan, or the radiologist may administer it intravenously on the day of your scan. 

The most common approach is a "resting" position scan, which means you'll lie on a table in the procedure room. 

During the scan, you must lie as still as possible, since any movement may reduce the scan quality. 

The camera will take a series of images while it is focused on the part of your body to be evaluated. 

In many cases, you can go back to your normal activities right after the scan, but your radiologist will let you know if you have any restrictions. 

The SPECT and PET scans are painless and side effects are rare. Drink plenty of fluids after the test to help flush the nuclear tracer out of your system. Contact the doctor who ordered the scan to discuss the test results. 

How Is a Nuclear Medicine Radiologist Certified? 

Training in nuclear medicine begins with a four-year undergraduate degree. Once admitted to medical school, the radiologist completes a demanding four-year academic program. Most nuclear medicine residencies consist of completing a three-year program after the student graduates from medical school. After completion, the radiologist can apply for board certification from the American Board of Nuclear Medicine. 

Referral and Research 

In most cases, your primary care physician will refer you to a nuclear medicine radiologist for tests. If you'd like to learn more about a particular doctor, you can search for Nuclear Medicine Specialists on, or through the American Board of Medical Specialties

Questions You Should Ask Your Nuclear Medicine Specialist 

Since the procedures will vary depending on the specialist you see and the procedure you need, ask your specialist about the steps you need to follow before, during and after the procedure. You should also ask how long it will take before your primary care physician receives the results of the test. 

Nuclear medicine has been helping to save lives since the 1950s, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the American Medical Association officially recognized it as a medical specialty. Today, it plays a major role in diagnosing and treating many different types of conditions.