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What is Positron Emission Tomography – Computed Tomography (PET/CT) Scanning?

Positron emission tomography, also called PET imaging or a PET scan, is a type of nuclear medicine imaging.

Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical imaging that uses small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose or treat a variety of diseases, including many types of cancers, heart disease and certain other abnormalities within the body.

Nuclear medicine or radionuclide imaging procedures are noninvasive and, with the exception of intravenous injections, are usually painless medical tests that help physicians diagnose medical conditions. These imaging scans use radioactive materials called radiopharmaceuticals or radiotracers.

Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam you are undergoing, the radiotracer is either injected into a vein, swallowed or inhaled as a gas and eventually accumulates in the organ or area of your body being examined, where it gives off energy in the form of gamma rays. This energy is detected by a device called a gamma camera, a (positron emission tomography) PET scanner and/or probe. These devices work together with a computer to measure the amount of radiotracer absorbed by your body and to produce special pictures offering details on both the structure and function of organs and tissues.

In some centers, nuclear medicine images can be superimposed with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to produce special views, a practice known as image fusion or co-registration. These views allow the information from two different studies to be correlated and interpreted on one image, leading to more precise information and accurate diagnoses. In addition, manufacturers are now making single photon emission computed tomography/computed tomography (SPECT/CT) and positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) units that are able to perform both imaging studies at the same time.

A PET scan measures important body functions, such as blood flow, oxygen use, and sugar (glucose) metabolism, to help doctors evaluate how well organs and tissues are functioning.

CT imaging uses special X-ray equipment, and in some cases a contrast material, to produce multiple images or pictures of the inside of the body. These images can then be interpreted by a radiologist on a computer monitor as printed images. CT imaging provides excellent anatomic information.

Today, most PET scans are performed on instruments that are combined PET and CT scanners. The combined PET/CT scans provide images that pinpoint the location of abnormal metabolic activity within the body. The combined scans have been shown to provide more accurate diagnoses than the two scans performed separately.

How should I prepare for a PET and PET/CT scan?

You may be asked to wear a gown during the exam or you may be allowed to wear your own clothing.

Women should always inform their physician or technologist if there is any possibility that they are pregnant or if they are breastfeeding.

You should inform your physician and the technologist performing your exam of any medications you are taking, including vitamins and herbal supplements. You should also inform them if you have any allergies and about recent illnesses or other medical conditions.

You will receive specific instructions based on the type of PET scan you are undergoing. Diabetic patients will receive special instructions to prepare for this exam.

If you are breastfeeding at the time of the exam, you should ask your radiologist or the doctor ordering the exam how to proceed. It may help to pump breast milk ahead of time and keep it on hand for use after the PET radiopharmaceutical and CT contrast material are no longer in your body.

Metal objects including jewelry, eyeglasses, dentures and hairpins may affect the CT images and should be left at home or removed prior to your exam. You may also be asked to remove hearing aids and removable dental work.

Generally, you will be asked not to eat anything for several hours before a whole body PET/CT scan since eating may alter the distribution of the PET tracer in your body and can lead to a suboptimal scan. This could require the scan to be repeated on another day, so following instructions regarding eating is very important. You should not drink any liquids containing sugars or calories for several hours before the scan. Instead, you are encouraged to drink water. If you are diabetic, you may be given special instructions. You should inform your physician of any medications you are taking and if you have any allergies, especially to contrast materials, iodine, or seafood.

You will be asked and checked for any conditions that you may have that may increase the risk of using intravenous contrast material.

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