The Application of Physics in Medicine

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  • 0:00 Definition of Medical Physics
  • 1:00 Diagnostic Radiology
  • 2:05 Nuclear Medicine
  • 2:50 Radiation Oncology
  • 3:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to explain how and why physics is used in the medical profession, as well as provide some examples. A short quiz will follow the lesson summary.

Definition of Medical Physics

Medical physics is the application of physics principles to medicine or health care. It's basically a way of using our physics knowledge to develop tools and treatments that help humans live longer and be healthier.

There are many branches of medical physics. The main ones are diagnostic radiology, or medical imaging, nuclear medicine and radiation oncology. But there is a lot of overlap between these categories, as we'll see later

Physics can be found in a variety of other areas of medicine too. For example, many types of ventilators wouldn't be possible without an understanding of fluid pressure and pulse frequency so that the ventilation rate and amount of pressure applied is appropriate. In fact, you could argue that any advanced or electronic technology used in medicine wouldn't exist without the knowledge of the universe gained through physics.

Let's go through the three branches of medical physics and look at some examples of what kinds of things are involved.

Diagnostic Radiology

Diagnostic radiology is essentially a form of medical imaging. All the methods of medical imaging we use, including x-rays, mammography, computed tomography, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), among other technologies, require the presence of an on-site or consulting physicist. These technologies are complex and can only be repaired by those who understand them.

MRI scanners use the principles of magnetism to take high quality images of the inside of the human body, especially the brain. They basically work by monitoring the nuclear spin and distribution of hydrogen molecules. Since humans are about 70% water, we have plenty of hydrogen molecules to observe.

X-rays are a way of taking images of the skeletal structure of the body.

Ultrasound uses high frequency sound waves that humans can tolerate, bouncing them off the inside of the body to create images of soft tissues. These are most notably used to create images of babies inside the womb.

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