Nuclear Studies

Basic Facts

  • Nuclear scans, images made by gamma cameras, can help detect disease at earlier stages than other diagnostic tests.
  • The radioactive substances used in this test are safe and painless.
  • The amount of radiation from these substances is minimal and much less than would be given with a standard kidney x ray.
  • Areas of high and low radioactive drug absorption signal or indicate abnormalities.

Nuclear studies are a type of radiology that allows physicians to diagnose disease by showing the structure and function of a particular organ or organs. To obtain nuclear scans, a physician administers an intravenous (IV) form of a radioactive drug, also known as a radioactive tracer, which is a special type of drug used together with nuclear scanning devices. One part of the tracer is a drug, the other part is a substance called a radioisotope, which emits gamma rays.
A gamma camera detects the gamma rays and sends the detection readouts to a computer for analysis and display.

Nuclear studies allow the physician to see how much of the radioactive drug an area of the body is absorbing.


Depending on the type of image being taken, a patient may be asked to follow specific directions before the test, such as fasting for 24 hours. If there are specific directions for the patient to follow, the patient’s physician will provide them prior to the test.

Patients that may be unsuited for nuclear imaging include:

  • Pregnant or nursing women;
  • Patients with prosthetic devices (for example, an artificial leg); and
  • Patients who have experienced an allergic reaction to the radioactive drug or to drugs that are chemically similar.


This waiting period could last for several hours. Once the drug begins emitting gamma rays, the gamma camera is positioned, focused on the patient, and turned on. The gamma camera is designed to detect each gamma ray and translate these light particles into an image that can be printed in various shades of gray or color. The patient is instructed to lie still and may occasionally be asked to hold his or her breath or change positions.


Nuclear imaging is generally safe and painless. In very rare cases, a patient might experience an allergic reaction to the radioactive drug.

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