The electromagnetic radiation spectrum includes long wavelength, low frequency, low-energy forms of nonionizing radiation and progresses to short wavelength, high frequency, high-energy forms of ionizing radiation. "Ionizing" refers to the ability of high-energy radiation to displace electrons from atoms and cause matter through which it passes to become electrically charged. Nonionizing forms include ultraviolet rays, visible rays, infrared rays, microwaves, and radio waves. Lasers, ultrasound, and nuclear magnetic resonance systems are other examples of nonionizing radiation used in the medical field. X-rays and gamma waves are ionizing forms of electromagnetic radiation.
Ionizing radiation is emitted from unstable forms of elements called radioisotopes. An isotope is a variation of an element with a different number of neutrons in the nucleus. Because its number of protons identifies an element, all isotopes of an element have the same number of protons and thus the same atomic number. However, the different numbers of neutrons give isotopes of the same element different atomic weights.
Some isotopes are unstable and spontaneously transform in order to reach a more stable configuration. This transformation is a process called decay or disintegration and may involve the release of ionizing radiation. An isotope that emits ionizing radiation during its decay is referred to as a radioisotope. Radioisotope is a general term for radioactive isotopes of any element and radionuclide is a term that refers to a radioactive isotope of a specific element.
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