PET Scan

PET Scan

Procedure Information 

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 nurse or 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 or inhaled as a gas). 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. Patients who are claustrophobic may feel some anxiety while positioned in the scanner. Also, some patients find it uncomfortable to hold one position for more than a few minutes. 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.

What are the benefits vs. risks?

Because PET allows study of body function, it can help physicians detect alterations in biochemical processes that suggest disease before changes in anatomy are apparent on other imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans.

Because the radioactivity is very short-lived, your radiation exposure is extremely low. The substance amount is so small that it does not affect the normal processes of the body.

The radioactive substance may expose the fetus of patients who are pregnant or the infants of women who are breast-feeding to the radiation. The risk to the fetus or infant should be considered related to the potential information gain from the result of the PET examination. 

What are the limitations of Positron Emission Tomography?

PET can give false results if a patient's chemical balances are not normal. Specifically, test results of diabetic patients can be adversely affected because of blood sugar or blood insulin levels.

Also, because the radioactive substance decays quickly and is effective for a short period of time, it must be produced in a laboratory near the PET scanner. It is important to be on time for the appointment and to receive the radioactive substance at the scheduled time. PET must be done by a radiologist who has specialized in nuclear medicine and has substantial experience with PET. Most large medical centers now have PET services available to their patients. Medicare and insurance companies cover many of the applications of PET, and coverage continues to increase.

Finally, the value of a PET scan is enhanced when it is part of a larger diagnostic work-up. This often entails comparison of the PET scan with other imaging studies such as CT or MRI.

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 would re-establish adequate blood flow.  PET scans of the brain are used to evaluatae 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. PET is usually done on an outpatient basis. 

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.

What must be done prior to the scan?

All patients are to check in at the Radiology Department Reception Area located on the first floor of the University Hospital at the designated appointment time. You may want to allow extra time for parking. Your procedure may involve the use of a drug that is specially ordered for your test.  If you are unable to keep this appointment for any reason, we ask that you call our Scheduling Office at (434) 924-9400 at least 24 hours prior to your appointment if possible.  If you are going to be late, please call us at that same number.