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Learn More About PET Scans

What is Positron Emission Tomography?

Positron emission tomography, also called PET imaging or a PET scan, is a diagnostic examination that involves the acquisition of physiologic images based on the detection of subatomic particles. These particles are emitted from a radioactive substance given to the patient. The subsequent views of the human body are used to evaluate function.

PET Scans use a technology that is completely different from either the CT Scan (X-Ray), or the MRI.  P.E.T. stands for Positron Emission Tomography – and once again, as it images your body’s soft tissues – it sends back images that tell the physician how certain clusters of cells may – or may not – be behaving.  The procedure does require the injection of a radio isotope in a sugar solution, and while the injection may be only momentarily uncomfortable – the scan itself is quite unremarkable.

What are some common uses of the procedure?

PET scans are used most often to detect cancer and to examine the effects of cancer therapy by characterizing biochemical changes in the cancer. These scans are performed on the whole body. PET scans of the heart can be used to determine blood flow to the heart muscle and help evaluate signs of coronary artery disease. Combined with a myocardial metabolism study, PET scans differentiate non-functioning heart muscle from heart muscle that would benefit from a procedure, such as angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery, which would re-establish adequate blood flow. PET scans of the brain are used to evaluate patients who have memory disorders of an undetermined cause; who have suspected or proven brain tumors; or who have seizure disorders that are not responsive to medical therapy, and therefore, are candidates for surgery.



How should I prepare for the procedure?

PET is usually done on an outpatient basis. Your doctor will give you detailed instructions on how to prepare for your examination. You should wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. You should not eat for four hours before the scan. You will be encouraged to drink water. Your doctor will instruct you regarding the use of medications before the test.

Note: Diabetic patients should discuss specific diet guidelines to control glucose levels during the day of the test.

What does the equipment look like?

You will be taken to an examination room that houses the PET scanner, which has a hole in the middle and looks like a large, doughnut. Within this machine are multiple rings of detectors that record the emission of energy from the radioactive substance in your body. While lying on a cushioned examination table, you will be moved into the hole of the machine. The images are displayed on the monitor of a nearby computer, which is similar in appearance to the personal computer you may have in your home.

How does the procedure work?

Before the examination begins, a radioactive substance is produced in a machine called a cyclotron and attached, or tagged, to a natural body compound, most commonly glucose, but sometimes water or ammonia. This process is called radiolabeling. Once this attached substance is administered to the patient, the radioactivity localizes in the appropriate areas of the body and is detected by the PET scanner.

Different colors or degrees of brightness on a PET image represent different levels of tissue or organ function. For example, because healthy tissue uses glucose for energy, it accumulates some of the radiolabled glucose, which will show up on the PET images. However, cancerous tissue, which uses more glucose than normal tissue, will absorb more of the substance and appear brighter than normal tissue on the PET images.

Scientifically speaking, the radioactive substance decay leads to the ejection of positive particles called positrons. A positron travels about one to two millimeters before colliding with an electron. The collision results in a conversion from mass to energy, resulting in the emission of two gamma rays heading off in exact opposite directions. Special crystals, called photomultiplier-scintillator detectors, within the PET scanner detect the gamma rays. The scanner's special camera records the millions of gamma rays being emitted, and a connected computer uses the information and complicated mathematical formulas, called algorithms, to map an image of the area where the radioactive substance has accumulated.

How is the procedure performed?

A technologist will take you into a special PET examination room. You will lie down on an examination table and be given the radioactive substance as an intravenous injection (although, in some cases, it will be given through an existing intravenous line). It will then take approximately 30 to 60 minutes for the substance to travel through your body and be absorbed by the tissue under study. During this time, you will be asked to rest quietly in a partially darkened room and to avoid significant movement or talking, which may alter the localization of the administered substance. After that time, scanning begins. This takes an additional 30 to 45 minutes.

Some patients, specifically those with heart disease, may undergo a stress test in which PET scans are obtained while they are at rest, then after undergoing the administration of a pharmaceutical to alter the blood flow to the heart.

Usually, there are no restrictions on daily routine after the test, although you should drink plenty of fluids to flush the radioactive substance from your body. 

What will I experience during the procedure?

The administration of the radioactive substance will feel like a slight pinprick if given by intravenous injection. You will then be made as comfortable as possible on the examination table before you are positioned in the PET scanner for the test. You will be asked to remain still for the duration of the examination.  You will not feel anything related to the radioactivity of the substance in your body.

Who interprets the results and how do I get them?

Patients undergo PET because their referring physician has recommended it.  A radiologist who has specialized training in PET will interpret the images and forward a report to your referring physician. It usually takes one to three days to interpret, report, and deliver the results.



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