You've heard of nuclear physics. Now learn about nuclear medicine.
Nuclear medicine began more than 60 years ago and is now considered as an extremely valuable discipline for the early diagnosis, treatment and control of numerous medical conditions.
Meet Dr Heinz Morkel, a specialised nuclear medicine physician, who practices out of Mediclinic Durbanville, Mediclinic Panorama, Mediclinic Somerset West and Mediclinic George. We speak to Morkel to learn exactly what this ground-breaking medical practice is and how it's used.
I’ve been told I need a nuclear medicine scan. What is it?
It is a specialised scan, which uses a small amount of radioactivity to get a picture of the function inside your body through an imaging instrument called a gamma camera.
It's used to diagnose many conditions such as cancers, injuries or infections and also to look at how organs like your heart or lungs are working. In the early 1950s, it was used to diagnose and treat thyroid conditions and it is still being used for this purpose. Today there are approximately 100 different diagnostic nuclear medicine imaging procedures of almost all organ systems.
I will need a radioactive injection. Is it safe?
Most nuclear medicine procedures involve the injection of a radioactive tracer into a vein, which is usually in your arm, but the dose of radiation is kept to a minimum – similar to the amount received during a chest x-ray. Take heart:
• The tracer is continually losing energy as it emits gamma rays of radioactivity, which are used to form images with the gamma cameras during the scan.
• Within a few hours most of the injected dose is flushed out of the system via the urinary system. You’ll be advised to increase your fluid intake for the rest of the day.
• If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, extra precautions will be taken, so please inform your radiographer or doctor before starting the procedure.
How long will my nuclear medicine scan take?
This depends on what you’re having looked at. The shortest possible visit will be for a thyroid scan which is done 20 minutes after injection, but for a bone scan, for example, you usually have to wait two or three hours before imaging commences, but you are free to leave the department and come back later for imaging. Other nuclear studies may involve several hours of scanning at different times of which you will be informed, so plan accordingly.
Will I need a referral for a nuclear medicine scan or treatment?
Because this is a specialised field, it’s advisable that you be referred by your GP or specialist even if you are returning for your annual check-up, such as for a follow-up bone scan. The referral letter will contain your clinical history, so that we are correctly informed. Please bring any previous scans and reports along for comparison, even if the study was performed at another nuclear medicine facility.
If you have any questions about nuclear medicine or would like to learn more, please post your comment here.