Nuclear Medicine: What It Is — and Isn't

Nuclear medicine is the use of radioactive materials in diagnostic or therapeutic procedures, most notably treatments for various forms of cancer. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and its Agreement States license and regulate the possession and use of radioactive materials for nuclear medicine. However, the NRC and its Agreement States do not practice medicine and do not give medical advice. Patients seeking information about specific procedures should consult their physicians or an appropriate medical society.

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Diagnostic and Therapeutic Uses of Radioisotopes

Diagnostic procedures generally involve the use of relatively small amounts of radioactive materials to facilitate imaging of certain organs to help physicians locate and identify tumors, size anomalies, or other physiological or functional organ problems. Therapeutic uses of radioactive materials typically are intended to kill cancerous tissue, reduce the size of a tumor, or reduce pain.

Common Nuclear Medicine Procedures

Common nuclear medicine procedures that use radioisotopes regulated by the NRC and its Agreement States include the following examples:

  • Brachytherapy
  • Gamma knife
  • Iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism
  • Portable imaging devices in dentistry and podiatry
  • Bone mineral analysis

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What Nuclear Medicine Isn't

Other procedures may use radiation or perform functions similar to those of radioisotopes, but do not involve radioactive material and are not regulated by the NRC. Most of these are regulated by state health agencies, and include the following examples:

  • X-ray
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Mammogram

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How NRC Regulations Protect You

NRC regulations are designed to ensure the proper use of radioactive materials in medical diagnosis, treatment, and research to ensure the safety of patients, medical workers, and the public, and to protect the environment. Medical use of radioactive materials falls broadly into the two categories of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, as described above. For additional information, see the following topics:

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Other Sources of Information

For more detailed information about the NRC's regulatory requirements related to nuclear medicine, see Medical Uses of Nuclear Materials. Licensees should also consult the Medical Uses Licensee Toolkit. Other sources of related information include the following professional societies:

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Monday, June 08, 2020