In nuclear medicine procedures, elemental radionuclides are combined with other elements to form chemical compounds, or else combined with existing pharmaceutical compounds, to form radiopharmaceuticals. These radiopharmaceuticals, once administered to the patient, can localize to specific organs or cellular receptors.Then, external detectors (gamma cameras) capture and form images from the radiation emitted by the radiopharmaceuticals. This process is unlike a diagnostic X-ray where external radiation is passed through the body to form an image. This property of radiopharmaceuticals allows nuclear medicine the ability to image the extent of a disease-process in the body, based on the cellular function and physiology, rather than relying on physical changes in the tissue anatomy. In some diseases nuclear medicine studies can identify medical problems at an earlier stage than other diagnostic tests.
Nuclear medicine tests differ from most other imaging modalities in that diagnostic tests primarily show the physiological function of the system being investigated as opposed to traditional anatomical imaging such as CT or MRI. Nuclear medicine imaging studies are generally more organ or tissue specific (e.g.: lungs scan, heart scan, bone scan, brain scan, etc.) than those in conventional radiology imaging, which focus on a particular section of the body (e.g.: chest X-ray, abdomen/pelvis CT scan, head CT scan, etc.). In addition, there are nuclear medicine studies that allow imaging of the whole body based on certain cellular receptors or functions. Examples are whole body PET scan or PET/CT scans, gallium scans, indium white blood cell scans, MIBG and octreotide scans.