Whole-body PET/CT: spectrum of physiological variants, artifacts and interpretative pitfalls in cancer patients

Nucl Med Commun. 2005 Aug;26(8):671-87. doi: 10.1097/01.mnm.0000171779.65284.eb.


Accurate diagnosis and staging in oncology is essential in the evaluation of cancer for optimal patient outcome. Conventional imaging techniques, such as computed tomography (CT), rely basically on morphological changes for tumour detection. Clinical experience, however, shows that morphological criteria may be misleading and may not always allow differentiation between benign and malignant lesions. Positron emission tomography (PET) with [F]fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) is rapidly gaining a critical role in the clinical evaluation of patients with cancer. However, PET lacks anatomical landmarks for topographic orientation, and identification of abnormal glucose metabolic activity in regions close to organs with variable physiological FDG uptake can be difficult. To overcome these difficulties, a combined PET/CT scanner that acquires both functional (PET) and CT images has been recently developed. Proper interpretation of PET (and PET/CT) images requires a thorough understanding of the normal physiological distribution of FDG in the body, along with a knowledge of frequently encountered physiological variations in FDG distribution, and recognition of non-malignant causes of FDG uptake that can be confused with a malignant neoplasm. In addition, because of the utilization of the CT transmission information for the correction of the attenuation of the PET emission data (and for the reconstruction of the PET images), some artifacts may be generated. As a consequence, CT based attenuation correction of PET images may result in erroneous PET/CT interpretations. The aim of this extensively illustrated paper is to demonstrate several potential pitfalls encountered during the interpretation of PET/CT images so that radiologists can avoid false positive diagnoses and recognize inherently non-specific findings on PET/CT images obtained for oncological diagnosis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Artifacts*
  • Diagnostic Errors / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography / methods*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Subtraction Technique*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods*
  • Whole-Body Counting / methods*