Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

Positron emission tomography (PET) is a type of nuclear medicine procedure that measures metabolic activity of the cells of body tissues. PET is a combination of nuclear medicine and biochemical analysis. Used mostly in patients with brain or heart conditions and cancer, PET helps to visualize the biochemical changes taking place in the body, such as the metabolism (the process by which cells change food into energy after food is digested and absorbed into the blood) of the heart muscle.

PET differs from other nuclear medicine examinations in that PET detects metabolism within body tissues, whereas other types of nuclear medicine examinations detect the amount of a radioactive substance collected in body tissue in a certain location to examine the tissue’s function.

Since PET is a type of nuclear medicine procedure, this means that a tiny amount of a radioactive substance called a radiopharmaceutical (radionuclide or radioactive tracer), is used during the procedure to assist in the examination of the tissue under study. Specifically, PET studies evaluate the metabolism of a particular organ or tissue, so that information about the physiology (functionality) and anatomy (structure) of the organ or tissue is evaluated, as well as its biochemical properties. Thus, PET may detect biochemical changes in an organ or tissue that can identify the onset of a disease process before anatomical changes related to the disease can be seen with other imaging processes such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

PET is most often used by oncologists (doctors specializing in cancer treatment), neurologists and neurosurgeons (doctors specializing in treatment and surgery of the brain and nervous system), and cardiologists (doctors specializing in the treatment of the heart). However, as advances in PET technologies continue, this procedure is beginning to be used more widely in other areas.

PET may also be used in conjunction with other diagnostic tests, such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to provide more definitive information about malignant (cancerous) tumors and other lesions. Newer technology combines PET and CT into one scanner, known as PET/CT. PET/CT shows particular promise in the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer, evaluating epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease and coronary artery disease.

Northwell suggests the following preparations for a PET scan:

  • Nothing to eat or drink, except water, for six hours prior to the procedure.
  • No nicotine, caffeine, alcohol for 12 hours prior to the exam.
  • If a patient is diabetic, he or she should notify the office where they will have the PET scan for special instructions.
  • Patients should bring any outside studies with them at the time of the exam. 

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Where a patient is screened or tested makes a difference. Northwell Health Imaging combines the skill of subspecialized radiologists with advanced imaging techniques.