We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What Are the Different Types of Nuclear Medicine Scans?

By T. Broderick
Updated Mar 03, 2024
Our promise to you
The Health Board is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At The Health Board, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

The field of nuclear medicine is expanding quickly, and the number of scans as well as their general availability seem to be growing every year. There are many different types being used at any given time, though some of the most popular options include bone scans; whole-body scans like positron emission topography (PET); scans that focus on specific tissues and glands; and scans that are designed specifically to identify and detect tumors. In the broadest sense, the goal of all of these is to help doctors and other medical professionals see inside the body to get a precise sense of problems, growths, or abnormalities in a way that is far less invasive than surgery, but much more accurate than X-ray or most other imaging option. Patients usually have to either ingest or inject a specialized tracker that the scanning machines and related procedures will use to map things like bone density, organ thickness, and tumor size, among other things. Some tests are highly specialized while others are more general. A lot depends on the problem being diagnosed, as well as the technology available.

Understanding the Scanning Process Generally

Nuclear medicine scans typically make use of radioactive isotopes to diagnose internal problems. Most of the time, scans are conducted in hospitals or clinics and are usually an important part of making a diagnosis. They’re usually considered relatively safe, but just the same they’re not usually performed without cause, and usually only after a patient has presented with a range of symptoms consistent with an expected diagnosis.

The patient must usually remains motionless for a period of minutes or hours while the scanning device measures how the body processes the isotope. Results can be immediate, but in other cases they take quite a bit of time to process. In some cases patients need to make a series of tracker-related appointments before the actual scanning even happens.

Bone Scans

As their name suggests, bone scans produce skeletal images that allow medical professionals to gauge how bones are growing and to see any tumors or lesions that are forming on them. Radioactive tracers are usually injected deep into the veins before these tests begin, and they are usually programmed to illuminate or “latch on” to any problem spots on the bones. The test itself is painless, and within a few hours the tracers will pass naturally out of the body, normally through the urine.

Positron Emission Tomography

One of the most common reasons for any nuclear medicine scan is to detect the presence of tumors, abnormal masses that often indicate cancer or other problems. Doctors can suspect tumors based on a patient’s symptoms, but these growths can be very difficult to place without some sort of imaging tool. In positron emission topography (PET) scanning, tracers attach not to problem areas of the bone but to irregular growths anywhere in the body. Like bone scans, these are usually full-body scans that look for tumors and cysts wherever they occur. The machine involved in this sort of test tends to be somewhat cavernous, and patients must usually lie on their backs and be inserted into or covered completely by the scanning device.

A test called the metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) scan is another option in this category. It uses an isotope to identify and bind to MIBG, which is a growth hormone in most tumors. It illuminates these growths on results, making them much easier to locate and measure.

Tissue-Specific Scans

Other types of scans look for problems within tissue material. The body’s soft tissues are often places where beginning infections lurk, and can also support tumors and other growths. Scans intended to measure tissue density and abnormality are normally called gallium scans, and usually involve specialized cameras that have been programmed to detect areas of the body that are emitting higher then normal radioactivity a day or two after a tracer has been placed.

Detecting Glandular Dysfunction

Nuclear medicine scans can also detect the presence of glandular dysfunctions, one example being hyperthyroidism. To test for this disorder, a patient ingests a pill containing a small amount of radioactive iodine and returns for testing several hours later. Instead of lying down for an hour or more, a technician simply places a sensor plate against the neck for about four minutes. The plate records the amount of radioactive iodine the thyroid has absorbed since ingestion. Above normal levels indicate hyperthyroidism.

Older Scans

One of the oldest and most “classic” scans is the cholescintigraphy, also known as the hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scan. In a healthy patient, the radioactive isotope travels through the liver and into the gallbladder within one hour of injection. If the isotope does not appear in the gallbladder, it indicates a duct obstruction between the liver and gallbladder. Due to advances in ultrasound technology, the number of HIDA scan procedures performed in developed countries is falling; when available, ultrasound if often the preferred method for this sort of diagnosis. Ultrasound is less invasive in that it requires no injection, is usually faster, and is almost always less expensive, too.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Link to Sources
Discussion Comments
The Health Board, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

The Health Board, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.