Scanning for Differences…

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If you’ve ever watched dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Doctor, or House, you’ll definitely have heard these terms at least once: PET, CT, or MRI. Among the vast array of medical terminology, positron emission tomography (PET), computerized tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are perhaps three of the most well-known. Whilst mentioned almost interchangeably, each member of this trio of imaging technology actually differs significantly from each other, but can also work in conjunction with each other. But what are the key differences?

To begin with, CT scans are composed of various X-ray images taken from different angles, generating a more holistic image of the patient’s bones, tumors and even cancers. CT scans are more precise and detailed than normal X-rays, but come with an added cost and radiation intensity. MRI scans, on the other hand, do not involve any form of radiation, instead relying upon a combination of magnetic force and radio waves to observe soft tissues and the nervous system. MRIs also generate images of bones, tumors, and cancers, but are superior to CT scans in terms of image quality and depth. However, this burdens the former with a heftier price tag and slower imaging process than the latter. If you need a more detailed image of your soft tissue, ligaments, or organs, your doctor will commonly suggest an MRI. If you need a general image of an area like your internal organs, or due to a fracture or head trauma, a CT scan is often recommended.

The third and newest form of imaging, the PET scan, differs from the other two imaging techniques due to its focus on imaging organs rather than bones. PET scans are often performed on CT/PET or MRI/PET combination machines, meaning they are used in conjunction with CT and MRI scans. During the procedure, patients are injected with a liquid containing small radioactive particles and sent through a PET scanner that picks up the particles in the organs. Compared to CT and MRI scans, PET scans take almost 10 times as long, require intense preparation and are considered an invasive procedure. They are significantly more expensive and leave trace amounts of radiation in the patient’s system, but are extremely useful in monitoring bodily functions and are more successful at detecting early-stage cancers. PETs yield images that are not as clear as CTs and MRIs, thus using them in conjunction with the latter two allows for an in-depth yet dynamic imaging treatment.

While the three different types of imaging technology have a number of similarities, their primary differences are in the areas of administration, procedure, and risk. While CT and MRI scans are commonly used on structures such as bones, their differences in cost and risk lead to gaps in imaging quality and efficiency. On the other hand, PET scans are used to monitor body functions and prove significantly more efficient at identifying cancers, despite their added risk. So, despite their similarities, none of these technologies can completely compensate for another and, like a lot of things in life, can be used together to strengthen their individual qualities, providing more comprehensive results and saving lives, one scan at a time.