What is Nuclear Imaging?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 06 January 2020
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Nuclear imaging is a form of medical imaging in which nuclear isotopes, also known as radionuclides, are used as part of the imaging study, with the goal of getting information about the patient's body which can be used in diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of disease. There are a number of different types of nuclear imaging which can be used in a variety of ways to collect data about patients. Usually, the imaging study is ordered by a doctor and conducted by a nuclear imaging specialist, who may be a technician or a medical doctor, depending on the circumstances.

One of the oldest forms of nuclear imaging is also probably the most well known. The x-ray involves bombarding the body with electromagnetic radiation to form a picture of the internal structures. Computed tomography (CT) is a specialized form of x-ray imaging in which “slices” are taken to create a three-dimensional image of the structure of interest.

Other forms of nuclear imaging require the ingestion or injection of radionuclides, with the progress of the isotope through the body being followed with a camera which is capable of picking up the radiation signature. This type of nuclear imaging can be used to provide a real-time picture of the function in a specific area of the body, with doctors looking for things like signs that the isotope is leaking, being occluded by a blockage, or behaving in other ways which might suggest an abnormality.


In a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, for example, an isotope is injected into the body and followed as it moves through the patient. The isotope emits gamma rays which can be picked up by the imaging equipment, creating a map of the inside of the body and identifying areas of concern. Using data from a PET scan, doctors can look at things like the function of the intestinal tract or brain, identifying abnormalities which could indicate the presence of a medical problem.

The use of nuclear imaging has become much safer over the years, thanks to the development of sophisticated technology which reduces the overall exposure to radioactive isotopes. The isotopes used in nuclear imaging studies have very short half lives, and they are introduced to the body in small quantities so that they can be quickly flushed after the study is complete. Some risks are inherent in exposure to radiation, however, especially in the case of patients who require repeated studies, and doctors monitor their patients closely for signs that they are experiencing health problems related to radiation exposure.


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Post 3

@valleyfiah- Radiation exposure for nuclear medicine technologists is minimal due to very strict safety standards and precautionary measures. Nuclear techs wear special badges that track radiation exposure, ensuring that exposure is below legal limits. Essentially everything that a technologists uses is shielded from syringes to gloves.

I am not sure what the total exposure is to a nuclear technologist is during a lifetime, but I would assume it is no more than a pilot or coal miner. As for instances of cancer, studies have shown that there is increased risk of cancer and premature death associated with nuclear bomb tests, radioactive coal emissions, proximity to nuclear plants, and nuclear plant accidents. There are also studies that show a link in increased thyroid cancer and nuclear technicians. These factors make the nuclear technician profession one of the highest paid technician jobs in the country, thus also making it a competitive job market.

Post 2

@Valleyfiah- Nuclear power plant technicians only need complete a two-year degree program to be qualified to work in a power plant. A program like this will also qualify you to work in almost any industrial or manufacturing setting as a maintenance technician.

You can find accredited programs at various two-year community colleges across the nation, specifically those in the same county as nuclear power plants. Some large universities also co-operate nuclear facilities and offer nuclear engineering and technician majors and minors. The programs will give a student a solid grounding in chemistry, maintenance, radiation protection and shielding, and operations management. These programs often incorporate internships and fellowships to give a student experience and find the best potential hires for the local plant.

Post 1

What type of education do I need to become a nuclear technologist? Are nuclear technologists exposed to much more background radiation than the average person is? Have there been any studies done on the increased risk of cancer in nuclear technologists, or the lack thereof?

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