Nuclear energy has long been a sensitive topic of conversation. However, it’s hard to deny the great advancements that it has offered – from powering our grids (it now offers around 11% of the world’s electricity),1 to defending our country, should that be necessary. Simply put, nuclear technology harnesses the energy released when the atoms of certain elements are split. In the 1930s, the father of nuclear medicine, John Lawrence, realized the extraordinary capabilities this technology could lend to the field of medicine. Today, radioactive, or nuclear materials are employed for everything from chemotherapy to Positron emission tomography (PET).2
Nuclear imaging has been groundbreaking in the field of medicine, allowing physicians to detect the presence of tumors, aneurysms, irregular blood flow to certain areas in the body, and blood cell disorders (such as thyroid issues).2 When it comes to several diseases, early diagnosis is the key to a high survival rate, and nuclear imaging has certainly advanced these efforts. PET scans use a tiny amount of radioactive material, called a radiotracer and a special camera to detect body discrepancies at the cellular level – often before they’ve had large-scale negative effects on the body.3
Oncology is one field that has had immense success using this technology. In addition to making it easier to detect cancer, PET scans can decipher whether it has spread in the body, or if it has returned after treatments. Prior to advanced imaging procedures, exploratory surgeries – that were invasive, expensive and didn’t provide detailed feedback – were used. While there is always a risk when there is exposure to radioactive materials, it’s fairly low and the benefits usually outweigh the dangers. In some cases, allergic reactions may occur; this is usually rare and no long-term negative effects have been reported from the use of low doses.3
Abnormal or unclear lab results regarding the bones can be cleared up with the use of a nuclear medicine 3-phase bone scan. Used in conjunction with X-rays, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the diagnostic tool is effective for evaluating the source of bone pain, detecting cancer in the bones, and finding shrouded fractures resulting from Osteoporosis.4
Have you ever received a routine stress test, only to gain less-than-telling results? Your Cardiologist may order a nuclear stress test if you’ve experienced symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest pain with no obvious cause. This test is highly effective at diagnosing coronary artery disease – a condition that develops when cholesterol or plaque builds up blocking the supply of oxygen, blood, and nutrients to the heart. It isn’t without its caveats though; some complications include dizziness, temporary low blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and the rare allergic reaction.5
Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) is one cutting-edge technique offering up three dimensional (tomographic) images of tracer molecules within a patient’s body. DaTSCAN™, one variety of SPECT, utilizes a substance that pinpoints parts of neurons in the brain where dopamine clings to them. Your physician will be able to detect light and dark regions on the scan – with lit up areas signifying surviving brain cells, and healthy dopamine neurons. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, it can help a doctor determine if patients are suffering from essential tremor vs. Parkinson’s disease or another parkinsonism.6 One major disadvantage that prevents widespread use of imaging like this, is its exorbitant cost to operate; purchasing, assembling, operating, and maintaining these machines can be a major expense to both medical institutions and patient.7
The amount of radiation administered during many of these procedures is akin to that of a routine X-ray, and is typically nothing to be concerned about. However, those who are elderly, pregnant, or young face the most risk with nuclear medicine treatments. Being exposed to excessive amounts of radioactive tracers over time may have an adverse reaction, and can cause certain cancers to develop.
A reputable physician will be able to determine if nuclear medicine is the best course of treatment for your needs. Specializing in diagnostic and interventional radiology, the experienced Radiologists at Independent Imaging utilize a host of nuclear tests to diagnose and treat everything from thyroid complications to heart conditions. For more information, call their office at 561-795-5558.