Background: The choice of treatment in patients with oral malignancies depends on accurate pretreatment staging and particularly the detection of lymph node involvement. Therefore staging of the neck should be as accurate as possible.
Patients: One hundred and six patients with histologically proven squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity.
Study design: In a prospective study, PET using fluoro-desoxy-glucose (18F-FDG), ultrasound, CT and MRI of head and neck were compared with the postoperative histologic tissue evaluation. Two thousand one hundred and ninety-six neck lymph nodes of 106 patients were investigated. In all patients the tumour was resected and a lymph node dissection was performed.
Results: The diagnostic procedures showed the following results when compared with the histological findings: PET: sensitivity 70%, specificity 82%, accuracy 75%; Ultrasound: 84%, 68%, 76%; CT: 66%, 74%, 70%; MRI: 64%, 69% 66%. Thus PET showed the highest specificity while ultrasound had the highest sensitivity compared with the other staging procedures. A nonsignificant correlation was found between the size of a lymph node metastasis and the ability to detect it. In 10 patients, second primary tumours or distant metastases were detected by PET only.
Conclusion: Due to the high number of small lymph node metastases from oral cavity carcinoma, the non-invasive neck staging methods are limited to a maximum accuracy of 76%. Elective neck treatment should be mandatory for all patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity.