Nuclear Medicine Tests

Nuclear Medicine TestsAt UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, we believe parents and guardians can contribute to the success of this test and invite you to participate. Please read the following information to learn about the scan and how you can help.

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Fast Facts About Nuclear Medicine Tests

  • Nuclear medicine tests give doctors detailed pictures of certain activities going on in the body.
  • There are several different types of nuclear medicine tests.  All nuclear medicine tests use a radioactive substance for picture-taking.  The radioactive substance has a very small amount of radioactive molecules in it. The substance is safe and will not hurt your child.
  • After getting the radioactive substance, your child may have pictures taken right away or may have to wait several hours or days to allow the radioactive molecules to travel throughout the body.
  • Nuclear medicine scans themselves do not hurt, but your child may need to have an intravenous (IV) line inserted into a vein or a catheter inserted into his or her bladder, depending on the exam. Your child may be a bit uncomfortable for a moment when the IV or catheter is first inserted.
  • A nuclear medicine scan can take from a few minutes to several hours to complete.
  • Children who may not be able to stay still for the entire test can be given sedation medication to help them sleep during the test; however, sedation is not necessary for most nuclear medicine tests.
  • On the day of the test, there may be special rules for eating and drinking.

Fast Facts About Sedation

Your child’s doctor may recommend that the scan be done under sedation so your child is able to stay completely still for the whole test.  That means your child will be given medication to make him or her sleep during the entire scan.

  • If your child receives sedation medication, he or she will not feel anything during the scan or remember it afterward.
  • Either a doctor, physician’s assistant (PA) or certified registered nurse practitioner (CRNP) will prescribe the sedation medication for your child, depending on your child’s age and medical history.  A pediatric radiology nurse will give your child the sedation medication.
  • The sedation medication may be given to your child either orally (through the mouth) or intravenously (through an IV placed in your child’s arm, hand, or foot) depending on his or her age.  There are no inhaled medications given.  This medication will take effect very quickly once it is given.
  • During the test, your child’s heart rate, blood pressure and blood oxygen level will be checked continuously by a pediatric radiology nurse.
  • A supervising pediatric radiology doctor is always nearby when sedation medication is given.

What Is A Nuclear Medicine Test?

A nuclear medicine test uses small amounts of a special liquid known as a radiopharmaceutical to look at and to treat diseases. Nuclear medicine tests are safe and give doctors pictures of the human body using a special camera.

Other radiology tests, such as MRI and CT scans, take detailed pictures of the body.  Nuclear medicine scans can show changes taking place inside the body that other tests cannot.  These detailed pictures of the body’s functions help doctors evaluate a problem, choose the best treatment, or see how well a treatment is working.

The radiopharmaceutical is given either by an IV line directly into a vein; by breathing it in; by a catheter placed into the bladder; or by eating a solid or liquid meal before the test.  Once it reaches the part of the body that is being tested, the radioactive substance sends signals that can be read by the nuclear medicine camera.  The amount of radioactivity that your child will receive is about the same as the radiation in other radiology tests, such as CT scans or X-rays.

Home Preparation

  • Have your child wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes on the day of the test.
  • Depending on the type of nuclear medicine test, there may be specific things you may need to do or bring with you. You may contact the Department of Pediatric Radiology for specifics for each nuclear medicine test.
  • The prescribing doctor will tell you if your child may take any medicine before the test.
  • You may want to bring along a “comfort item”—such as a favorite stuffed animal or “blankie”—for your child to hold during the test.

If sedation has been ordered for your child, there are important rules for eating and drinking that must be followed in the hours before the test. 

  • Your child may not have solid foods or milk products up to 8 hours before the scheduled time.
  • Formula-fed babies may be given formula up to 6 hours before the scheduled time.
  • Breastfed babies may nurse up to 4 hours before the scheduled time. 
  • Your child may have ONLY the following liquids: water, Pedialyte® and apple juice up to 2 hours before the scheduled time.  Your child cannot drink anything carbonated.

The Test

There are several types of nuclear medicine tests. Depending on the type of nuclear medicine test being done, your child may be given the radiopharmaceutical either by an IV line directly into a vein; by breathing it in; by a catheter placed into the bladder; or by eating a solid or liquid meal before the test.

Nuclear medicine tests are done at the Department of Pediatric Radiology of Children’s Hospital by a nuclear medicine technologist.  In the room will be a nuclear medicine technologist and sometimes a pediatric radiology nurse.  You will also see a table and a nuclear medicine camera.  The lights will be dim inside the room.

  • Your child will usually be asked to lie down on the table.
  • The technologist may place a Velcro strap across your child’s waist or use a papoose board to help him or her stay still during the test.
  • During the scan, the camera will either move over your child’s body or stay in one position but will not touch your child at any point.  The scan itself does not hurt.
  • The technologist will remain in the room for most of the test.
  • If your child received sedation medication for relaxation or sleep, he or she will be taken to the recovery area to be watched until the medication wears off and he or she is awake again.

A Parent’s/Guardian’s Role During the Test

We welcome your help and support during this test. One parent or guardian is invited to join your child in the scan room. Other adults and children must stay in the waiting area.

  • If your child is having sedation, you will be asked as the parent or legal guardian to sign a consent form before the sedation is given.
  • The most important role of a parent or guardian during the test is to help your child stay calm and relaxed.  It is important that your child stays still when the scan is being done.
  • The best way to help your child stay calm is for you to stay calm.
  • We encourage you to talk to your child and hold his or her hand, if possible.
  • If an IV or catheter must be placed, you can help by reassuring and calming your child.  Please tell the staff of ways that they might also help in keeping your child calm.

After the Test

After the nuclear medicine scan, the quality of the pictures will be checked by a radiology doctor.  Once the quality is approved, then the test is complete.  A report of your child’s scan will be sent to the doctor who ordered it, usually within 48 hours.  If the results are urgent, the referring doctor will be contacted immediately.

  • Please contact the doctor who ordered the scan for the results.
  • If your child did not receive sedation, then no special follow-up care for your child is necessary. Your child may resume his or her normal activities and diet when you get home.

Waking Up/Going Home After Sedation

  • If your child received sedation for the scan, he or she may be moved to a recovery area after the scan and will stay there until the medication wears off.  The length of time it takes the medication to wear off will vary, as some children take longer than others to become alert. The minimum amount of time spent in recovery is 1 hour.
  • Your child will not be discharged until he or she is able to eat and drink.  A nurse in the recovery area will give your child juice and crackers.
  • When your child is discharged, he or she may still be groggy and should take it easy for the rest of the day.
  • Your child may resume normal eating and drinking when you get home.
  • Your child may resume normal activities the next day.

Special Needs and Patient Preparation

If your child has any special needs or health issues you feel the doctor performing the scan needs to know about, please call the Department of Pediatric Radiology at Children’s before the test and ask to speak with a nurse. It is important to notify us in advance about any special needs.

Preparing your child beforehand, as well as comforting your child during the test, will help your child have a more positive experience. Sometimes it is difficult to know how to explain tests to children. If you have any questions about ways to prepare or support your child, or if feel your child will have difficulty during the test, please call the Department of Pediatric Radiology at Children’s and ask to speak with the Child Life Specialist.