Significance of incidental fluorodeoxyglucose uptake in the parotid glands and its impact on patient management

Sandip Basu, Mohamed Houseni, Abass Alavi
Nuclear Medicine Communications 2008, 29 (4): 367-73

BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: Minimal-to-low grade fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) uptake in the parotid glands is regarded as a normal variant in a whole-body survey with FDG-PET. Not frequently, however, a relatively intense or asymmetric FDG uptake is encountered in the parotid glands. The aim of this study was to determine the causes and characteristics of this 'FDG accumulation of uncertain significance' in the parotid glands in patients without any known or suspected pathologies at the time of whole-body FDG-PET. In addition, we also examined patients in whom there was no documented evidence of parotid pathology before FDG-PET scan and a suspicion of disease involvement was first raised in the reports in view of focal uptake in the FDG-PET images.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: A total of 25 patients with 49 PET examinations [46 PET and three PET/computed tomography (CT) scans] were identified from the retrospective examination of PET reports and were analyzed in this study. Only those cases with no earlier history of disease involvement of parotid gland or known parotid pathology before FDG-PET were selected for this analysis. These patients were selected from a population of patients with a known malignancy elsewhere who underwent conventional whole-body FDG-PET or PET/CT for staging, disease viability assessment, or treatment monitoring purposes and had demonstrated varying patterns of FDG uptake (unilateral, bilateral, symmetric, or asymmetric) in the parotid glands. FDG uptake in the parotid glands was reported to be of uncertain significance in the majority of these patients and further correlation was suggested in the PET reports. In five patients with asymmetric and focally enhanced FDG uptake, a suspicion of disease involvement was raised in the reports. The results of appropriate correlative investigations with MRI, low-dose nonenhanced attenuation CT images (based on PET/CT scans), and histopathology (in cases in which focal lesions were revealed by the anatomic imaging modalities and biopsy was performed) carried out subsequent to the FDG-PET scans were reviewed for a definitive conclusion with regard to the significance of the FDG uptake in the parotid glands in these patients. In the absence of any focal pathology, clinical and follow-up FDG-PET data were reviewed for a logical conclusion, which were available in a majority of these patients. Standardized uptake values (maximum) were calculated by generating a manual region of interest over FDG activity. The pattern and the intensity of the FDG uptake were correlated with the final diagnosis.

RESULTS: In six of the 25 patients with diffuse and symmetrical FDG uptake no clearcut pathology was demonstrated by clinical or radiological examinations. Five patients of this subgroup also demonstrated associated enhanced FDG activity in the submandibular salivary glands. Nineteen patients (76%) demonstrated asymmetric FDG uptake. Among these, focally enhanced uptake was observed in seven patients (28% of the total number of patients and 36.8% of the patients who demonstrated asymmetric FDG uptake in the parotids). Twelve patients (48% of total patients and 63.2% of the patients who demonstrated asymmetric FDG uptake) demonstrated asymmetric and diffuse FDG uptake pattern. No revelation of disease either by the MRI or follow-up clinical and FDG-PET examinations was observed in patients with asymmetric diffuse uptake. Five of the seven patients, who had asymmetric focal uptake in one of the parotids, were found to have focal lesions in either correlative MRI or low-dose nonenhanced CT. The final diagnosis based upon histopathology revealed primary parotid tumors (e.g., Warthin's tumor and pleomorphic adenoma, which presented as FDG-avid parotid incidentaloma) or metastatic disease involvement.

CONCLUSION: Both the pattern and intensity of FDG uptake have important implications for differential diagnosis in the salivary glands in whole-body FDG-PET. A bilaterally symmetrical increased uptake is usually physiological. An asymmetrical uptake, especially when focal, would warrant further radiological and histopathological correlation to rule out disease involvement. At times, this can lead to the detection of an asymptomatic hitherto unknown etiology, which would have been otherwise interpreted as a metastatic disease in the background of an existing malignancy in these patients; this is noteworthy as it may have a bearing on the subsequent management of these patients.

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