Nuclear medicine is a branch of medicine in which radioactive materials, known as radionuclides or radioactive isotopes, are used in diagnosis and treatment of disease. The radioactive materials used vary, depending on the patient's individual condition, but in all cases they have short half-lives, decaying very rapidly in the body and reducing the potential for radiation damage. Even with short half-lives, radioactive isotopes can be dangerous, and procedures in nuclear medicine are undertaken and performed with care to minimize the risk to the patient and his or her care providers.
In diagnosis, radioactive isotopes can be used in medical imaging in the form of a tracer or contrast material which is swallowed by the patient or injected. As the isotope moves through the body, it emits radiation which can be picked up with a special camera, revealing information about the internal structures of the body. Nuclear imaging, as it is known, is used in the diagnosis of a range of conditions, from bleeds into the abdomen to problems with the structure of the brain. Bone scans and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) are two examples of nuclear imaging.
Radioactive isotopes are also used in medical treatment. In these instances, the isotopes are targeted at specific cells in order to inhibit growth or kill the cells. The isotopes are most commonly used in the treatment of cancers, although nuclear medicine can also be used to treat tumors and some blood disorders. Because of the higher doses of radiation required to damage cells, patients may experience a variety of difficult side effects as a result of the use of radioactive isotopes in medical treatment.
Depending on the patient's condition, nuclear medicine may be provided on an outpatient basis, in which case the patient goes home after the procedure is performed, or an on inpatient basis, where the patient is hospitalized. In some cases, inpatient treatment may also be used to isolate patients who become temporarily radioactive as a result of treatment, ensuring that they do not expose friends and family to radionuclides. With tighter control over dosages, this is less common, but it does still occur.
When a patient requires a procedure which involves radioactive isotopes, he or she may be referred to a nuclear medicine specialist to discuss the best course of action to take. Technicians who perform imaging studies and treatments with radionuclides are specially trained to provide a high level of very safe care to their patients, ensuring that the exposure to radiation is as limited as possible.