Frequently Asked Questions About PET

Last Modified: April 18, 2002

This information was provided by an unrestricted educational grant from Integral PET Associates, LLC.

FAQS about PET

Who should get a PET scan?

Your primary care physician or your referring specialist will be the best judge of that. PET scans are particularly useful in many types of cancer, including ovarian, lung, brain, and skin; coronary heart disease; and all types of neurological problems, such as epilepsy and Alzheimer's disease. For children, PET is a powerful tool for diagnosing brain tumors, other cancers, and epilepsy.

What's the difference between PET and other imaging modalities such as CAT scan and MRI?

A PET scan produces images of metabolic activity as opposed to images of the body's physical structures that are derived from these other imaging tests.

How does PET work?

For a PET scan, a small amount of radioactivity is attached to biological substances that are similar to those already found in the body. These radioactive agents, once introduced to the body, are processed by organs and tissues as part of their normal function. The PET scanner is able to detect the location of the radiation in the body. A computer then creates a picture of the activity using colors to highlight the different levels of function. The unique information that PET provides is extremely useful to your physician in making decisions regarding your future care and medical treatment.

What does a PET scan do for someone diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness?

PET can effectively pinpoint the source of many of the most common cancers and give physicians important early information about heart and neurological diseases, eliminating the need for redundant tests and diagnostic surgical procedures.

How much radiation does a PET scan expose the patient being scanned?

Because the radioisotope used in a PET scan is short- lived, the amount of radiation exposure the patient receives is the same as from two chest X-rays.

What is the PET scan procedure like?

In most cases, a PET scan will begin with an injection of the radioisotope agent into the patient's arm. The patient will be asked to rest quietly for a short period of time as the tracer circulates throughout the body. Then the patient will be positioned on a scanning bed and scanned. As the images of the body are obtained, the patient will be asked to remain very still. The imaging time varies with the procedure, but generally takes about one hour.

Do people experience any reactions as a result of a PET scan?

Patients typically do not experience any reactions as a result of the PET scan, because the tracer material is processed by the body naturally. Therefore, no side effects are expected.

Is PET painless?

Yes, after the injection of the trace solution into the patient's arm, the patient relaxes while the scan is performed.

What are the clinical applications of PET?

Traditionally, PET has been used in oncology (the study of tumors), neurology (the study of diseases and disorders of the nervous system), and cardiology (the study of diseases and functioning of the heart). PET provides the physician with information about the body's chemistry not available through any other procedure. Unlike Computed Tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which look at anatomy, PET evaluates metabolic activity. PET is quickly becoming a leading diagnostic tool used to detect all types of cancer.

I've only heard about PET scans recently. Are they new?

PET has been investigated for more than 30 years. However, only until recently, few institutions had access to this powerful diagnostic tool. As the technology expands, this diagnostic tool is becoming more mainstream. Clinical trials have demonstrated the utility of this modality, moving it from the research environment to the clinic environment.

Will my insurance cover PET?

Many insurance companies are reimbursing for some PET procedures, including Medicare. Contact your insurer directly to learn about payment reimbursement.