Imaging Techniques For Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Detection

Introduction to adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC)

Intro: Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC) is a rare form of cancer that arises from glandular tissues, commonly occurring in the head and neck regions. Although relatively uncommon, ACC is known for its unique characteristics, including slow growth, an infiltrative nature, and a tendency to recur after treatment. This article provides an overview of ACC, its clinical features, and current diagnostic methods and emphasises the significance of early detection in improving prognosis and treatment outcomes.

Overview of ACC:

  1. Definition and incidence: Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma is a malignant tumour that typically originates in the salivary glands, particularly the major and minor salivary glands. However, it can also develop in other sites such as the lacrimal glands, breast, respiratory tract, and other secretory organs. ACC is characterised by the presence of small, tubular, or cribriform (perforated) structures surrounded by a characteristic "Swiss cheese" pattern
  2. Clinical features: ACC often presents with subtle symptoms, leading to delayed diagnosis. Common signs and symptoms include a painless mass or swelling in the affected area, persistent pain, facial nerve weakness, and changes in voice or speech. The slow growth rate of ACC may result in an extended asymptomatic phase, making early detection challenging
  3. Diagnostic methods: Accurate diagnosis of ACC involves a comprehensive approach, including clinical evaluation, imaging studies, and histopathological examination. Imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans can help determine the extent and spread of the tumour. Biopsy and histological examination remain the gold standard for confirming the diagnosis
  4. Treatment and prognosis: The treatment of ACC typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, including surgery, radiation therapy, and, in some cases, chemotherapy. Surgical resection aims to remove the tumour while preserving as much healthy tissue as possible. However, complete removal may not always be feasible due to the infiltrative nature of ACC. Radiation therapy is often employed to control local tumour growth and reduce the risk of recurrence. The prognosis for ACC varies depending on several factors, such as tumour location, size, stage, and the presence of distant metastasis1

Importance of early detection:

  1. Improved treatment options: Early detection of ACC allows for a wider range of treatment options. When diagnosed in its early stages, surgical intervention can be more effective, as it is more likely to achieve complete tumour removal. In some cases, surgery may be the only treatment needed, resulting in a better quality of life for the patient
  2. Enhanced prognosis: Early detection is crucial for improving the prognosis of ACC. The slow-growing nature of the tumour often leads to delayed diagnosis, resulting in advanced disease stages at the time of detection. Early diagnosis allows for prompt initiation of appropriate treatment, reducing the risk of local recurrence and distant metastasis and increasing the chances of long-term survival
  3. Preservation of function: ACC tumours can infiltrate nearby structures, leading to functional impairment. Early detection enables timely intervention, minimising damage to vital structures and improving the preservation of important functions such as swallowing, speech, and facial nerve integrity. This can significantly enhance the patient's quality of life
  4. Psychological support: Early detection provides an opportunity for patients and their families to seek psychological support and make informed decisions regarding treatment options. It allows for better planning, emotional preparation, and access to support networks, which can help alleviate anxiety and facilitate coping with the diagnosis2

Imaging techniques for ACC detection

Role of imaging in ACC diagnosis

  1. Detection and Localization: Imaging techniques are essential for identifying the presence and location of ACC tumours. Computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasound (US) can accurately visualise the primary tumour, determine its size and extent, and identify any associated lymph node involvement. These modalities assist in preoperative planning and guide targeted biopsies to confirm the diagnosis
  2. Staging and Assessment of Tumour Spread: ACC has a propensity for perineural invasion and local infiltration. Imaging plays a critical role in determining the extent of tumour spread, evaluating the involvement of adjacent structures, and identifying potential metastatic disease. CT, MRI, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans help assess regional lymph nodes' distant metastasis and aid in staging the disease, guiding treatment decisions
  3. Treatment planning and monitoring: Imaging techniques provide valuable information for treatment planning and monitoring the response to therapy. They assist in defining surgical margins, determining the feasibility of complete tumour resection, and evaluating the response to radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Follow-up imaging can help detect local recurrence or distant metastasis, enabling timely intervention3

Advantages and limitations of imaging modalities

Advantages of Imaging Modalities:

  1. Computed tomography (CT):
  • Rapid imaging technique, allowing for quick evaluation of ACC
  • Provides detailed anatomical information, helping assess tumour size, local invasion, and lymph node involvement
  • Valuable for surgical planning and assessing treatment response
  • Contrast-enhanced CT scans aid in visualising vascular invasion and metastasis
  1. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI):
  • Excellent soft tissue contrast resolution, making it suitable for ACC evaluation
  • Enables accurate assessment of tumour extent, local invasion, perineural spread, and involvement of critical structures
  • Useful for evaluating tumour vascularity and distinguishing between benign and malignant lesions
  • Dynamic contrast-enhanced MRI provides valuable information on tumour perfusion
  1. Ultrasound (US):
  • Non-invasive, cost-effective, and readily available imaging modality
  • Helps in the initial evaluation of palpable masses and identification of superficial ACC lesions
  • Assists in guiding fine-needle aspiration (FNA) or core biopsies for histopathological confirmation
  1. Positron emission tomography (PET) scan:
  • Useful for assessing distant metastasis and detecting occult primary tumours
  • Helps in identifying sites of high metabolic activity, indicative of malignant ACC lesions
  • Can aid in treatment planning, response evaluation, and restaging after therapy4

Limitations of Imaging Modalities:

  1. False negatives: Imaging techniques may occasionally fail to detect small or early-stage ACC tumours, leading to false-negative results
  2. Lack of specificity: Imaging findings may not be specific to ACC, and differential diagnosis with other salivary gland tumours or benign lesions can be challenging
  3. Inadequate visualisation: Certain anatomical areas, such as the base of the skull or cranial nerves, may be difficult to visualise accurately on imaging, limiting the assessment of perineural spread
  4. Overestimation or underestimation of tumour extent: Imaging modalities have limitations in accurately determining the exact extent of tumour invasion and involvement of adjacent structures, potentially impacting treatment planning5

Computed tomography (CT) scans

Principles and procedures

CT scans utilise X-ray technology and advanced computer algorithms to create detailed cross-sectional images of the body. During a CT scan, a rotating X-ray beam captures multiple images that are reconstructed into detailed 2D or 3D images.

CT scan findings for ACC

CT scans can reveal important information about ACC, including:

  • Tumour size, location, and extent
  • Involvement of adjacent structures and organs
  • Lymph node enlargement or metastasis
  • Vascular invasion and calcifications

Benefits and considerations

  • Quick and efficient imaging technique for ACC evaluation
  • Provides detailed anatomical information
  • Allows for precise surgical planning and treatment response assessment
  • Contrast-enhanced CT scans can identify vascular invasion and metastasis
  • Limited sensitivity for small lesions and may lack specificity for ACC6

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Principles and techniques

MRI utilises powerful magnets and radio waves to generate detailed images of the body's soft tissues. It provides excellent contrast resolution and multiplanar imaging capabilities.

MRI findings for ACC

MRI can provide valuable information about ACC, including:

  • Tumour size, shape, and extent
  • Involvement of adjacent structures and nerves
  • Perineural spread
  • Tumour vascularity and perfusion

 Benefits and considerations

  • Excellent soft tissue contrast resolution
  • Detailed evaluation of ACC extent and local invasion
  • Helpful for assessing perineural spread and involvement of critical structures
  • Dynamic contrast-enhanced MRI provides information on tumour perfusion
  • Limited availability and higher cost compared to CT scans7

Positron emission tomography (PET) Scans

Basics of PET scans

PET scans involve the injection of a small amount of radioactive material (tracer) that emits positrons. The emitted positrons are detected by a PET scanner, creating images that highlight areas of increased metabolic activity.

PET scan applications for ACC

PET scans can be useful for ACC in the following ways:

  • Detecting distant metastases
  • Assessing response to treatment
  • Identifying occult primary tumours
  • Evaluating tumour metabolism and activity

Benefits and considerations

  • Can detect distant metastasis and occult primary tumours
  • Assists in treatment planning and response evaluation
  • Provides functional information about tumour metabolism
  • Limited spatial resolution and potential false-positive findings
  • Availability may be limited, and it may be costlier than other modalities8


Overview of ultrasonography

Ultrasonography, or ultrasound, uses high-frequency sound waves to produce real-time images of the body's structures. It is non-invasive and does not involve ionising radiation.

Ultrasonography findings for ACC

Ultrasonography can provide valuable information about ACC, including:

  • Evaluation of superficial masses and lymph nodes
  • Localization and guidance for biopsies
  • Assessment of tumour vascularity and blood flow
  • Differentiation between cystic and solid components

 Benefits and considerations

  • Non-invasive and widely available
  • Real-time imaging for immediate assessment
  • Assists in initial evaluation and guidance for biopsies
  • Limited penetration depth and operator-dependent interpretation.9

Other imaging techniques

Additional imaging techniques in ACC

Other imaging techniques, such as Cone Beam Computed Tomography (CBCT), Sialography, and Dacryocystography, may have specific roles in evaluating ACC based on the location and involvement of structures.

Roles and considerations

  • CBCT provides high-resolution imaging for dental and maxillofacial evaluation
  • Sialography helps visualise salivary gland ducts and assess their patency
  • Dacryocystography aids in evaluating the lacrimal drainage system.10

Comparison of imaging techniques

Strengths and weaknesses of imaging modalities

Computed tomography (CT):

  • Strengths: Quick and efficient, provide detailed anatomical information, useful for surgical planning
  • Weaknesses: Limited sensitivity for small lesions, lacks specificity for ACC

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI):

  • Strengths: Excellent soft tissue contrast resolution, detailed evaluation of tumour extent, helpful for assessing perineural spread
  • Weaknesses: Limited availability, higher costs compared to CT, and the potential for artefacts 

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans:

  • Strengths: Can detect distant metastases, assists in treatment planning and response evaluation, and provides functional information about tumour metabolism
  • Weaknesses: Limited spatial resolution, potential false-positive findings, availability, and cost considerations


  • Strengths: Non-invasive, real-time imaging assists in initial evaluation and guidance for biopsies
  • Weaknesses: Limited penetration depth, operator-dependent interpretation11

Sensitivity, specificity, and accuracy comparison

The sensitivity, specificity, and accuracy of each imaging modality vary, and their performance can be influenced by several factors, including tumour location, size, and histological features. Generally, MRI and PET scans have shown higher sensitivity and specificity compared to CT and ultrasonography. However, each modality has its strengths and limitations, and no single modality can provide a comprehensive assessment of ACC on its own.12

Complementary roles of imaging modalities

Integrating multiple imaging modalities offers complementary information, enhancing the overall evaluation of ACC. CT scans provide detailed anatomical information, MRI offers excellent soft tissue contrast resolution, PET scans provide functional information about tumour metabolism, and ultrasonography aids in real-time assessment. By combining the strengths of each modality, clinicians can obtain a more comprehensive understanding of tumour extent, invasion, and involvement of adjacent structures.13

Integrating imaging with biopsy and clinical assessment

Imaging techniques should be integrated with biopsy and clinical assessment for accurate diagnosis and staging of ACC. Biopsy remains the gold standard for confirming the histopathological diagnosis. Imaging complements these findings by providing information on tumour location, size, and involvement of surrounding structures. Clinical assessment helps in determining symptoms, evaluating functional impairment, and guiding treatment decisions.14

Correlating imaging with histopathology

Correlating imaging findings with histopathological features is essential for accurate diagnosis and treatment planning. Imaging can help identify high-risk features such as perineural invasion, vascular invasion, or lymph node involvement, which influence prognosis and treatment decisions. Histopathological examination provides valuable information regarding tumour differentiation, growth patterns, and the presence of metastasis.15

Role in tumour staging and treatment planning

Imaging techniques play a vital role in tumour staging and treatment planning. They provide valuable information for determining tumour size, local invasion, lymph node involvement, and the presence of distant metastasis. This information helps in selecting the appropriate treatment approach, determining surgical receptibility and guiding adjuvant therapy decisions.16

Collaboration between specialists

Effective management of ACC requires a collaborative approach between radiologists, pathologists, oncologists, and surgeons. Integrating imaging findings with histopathology and clinical assessment facilitates multidisciplinary discussions and treatment planning, leading to improved patient outcomes.17


Imaging techniques play a critical role in the detection and evaluation of Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC). Several modalities, including Computed Tomography (CT) scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, and Ultrasonography, offer valuable insights into the extent of the tumour, involvement of adjacent structures, and presence of metastasis.

CT scans provide detailed anatomical information and aid in surgical planning, while MRI offers excellent soft tissue contrast resolution and is particularly useful in assessing perineural spread. PET scans provide functional information about tumour metabolism and are beneficial for detecting distant metastases and assessing treatment response. Ultrasonography is a non-invasive modality that offers real-time imaging and is helpful in the initial evaluation and guidance for biopsies.

Each imaging modality has its strengths and weaknesses. CT scans are quick and efficient but have limited sensitivity for small lesions. MRI provides detailed evaluation but may have limited availability and higher cost. PET scans offer functional information but have limited spatial resolution. Ultrasonography is widely available but has limited penetration depth.

Integrating multiple imaging modalities allows for a more comprehensive evaluation of ACC, as each modality offers complementary information. Combining imaging findings with histopathological examination and clinical assessment is crucial for accurate diagnosis, staging, and treatment planning. Collaboration between specialists, including radiologists, pathologists, oncologists, and surgeons, is essential to ensure optimal management of ACC.


  1. Dillon PM, Chakraborty S, Moskaluk CA, Joshi PJ, Thomas CY. Adenoid cystic carcinoma: A review of recent advances, molecular targets, and clinical trials. Head Neck [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 38(4):620–7. Available from:
  2. Fang Y, Peng Z, Wang Y, Gao K, Liu Y, Fan R, et al. Current opinions on diagnosis and treatment of adenoid cystic carcinoma. Oral Oncology [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 130:105945. Available from:
  3. Liu X-W, Xie C-M, Li H, Zhang R, Geng Z-J, Mo Y-X, et al. Nasopharyngeal adenoid cystic carcinoma: magnetic resonance imaging features in ten cases. Chin J Cancer [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 31(1):19–28. Available from:
  4. Schulz-Ertner D, Nikoghosyan A, Didinger B, Münter M, Jäkel O, Karger CP, et al. Therapy strategies for locally advanced adenoid cystic carcinomas using modern radiation therapy techniques. Cancer [Internet]. 2005 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 104(2):338–44. Available from:
  5. Castello A, Olivari L, Lopci E. Adenoid cystic carcinoma: focus on heavy ion therapy and molecular imaging. Am J Nucl Med Mol Imaging [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 8(1):1–14. Available from:
  6. Li W, Hua W, Yan F, Shen H, Xu H. Adenoid cystic carcinoma of trachea: a case report and review of literature. Chinese Medical Journal [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 125(12):2238. Available from:
  7. Shimamoto H, Chindasombatjaroen J, Kakimoto N, Kishino M, Murakami S, Furukawa S. Perineural spread of adenoid cystic carcinoma in the oral and maxillofacial regions: evaluation with contrast-enhanced CT and MRI. Dentomaxillofacial Radiology [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 41(2):143–51. Available from:
  8. Tan BF, Tan WCC, Wang FQ, Lechner M, Schartinger VH, Tan DSW, et al. PSMA PET Imaging and Therapy in Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma and Other Salivary Gland Cancers: A Systematic Review. Cancers [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 14(15):3585. Available from:
  9. ICHIKAWA K, MIZUKAMI Y, TAKAYAMA T, TAKEMURA A, MIYATI T, TANIYA T. A case of adenoid cystic carcinoma of the breast. J Med Ultrasonics [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 34(4):193–6. Available from:
  10. [Internet]. Monitoring – Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation; [cited 2023 Jul 21]. Available from:
  11. The pros and cons of imaging options. Contemporary Pediatrics [Internet]. 2001 [cited 2023 Jul 21]. Available from:
  12. Hanna E, Vural E, Prokopakis E, Carrau R, Snyderman C, Weissman J. The Sensitivity and Specificity of High-Resolution Imaging in Evaluating Perineural Spread of Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma to the Skull Base. Archives of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 133(6):541–5. Available from:
  13. Craig EV, Shannon LM, Andreotti RF. The Complementary Role of Ultrasound and Magnetic Resonance Imaging in the Evaluation of Endometriosis: A Review. Ultrasound Q. 2020; 36(2):123–32.
  14. Tam AL, Lim HJ, Wistuba II, Tamrazi A, Kuo MD, Ziv E, et al. Image-Guided Biopsy in the Era of Personalized Cancer Care: Proceedings from the Society of Interventional Radiology Research Consensus Panel. J Vasc Interv Radiol [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 27(1):8–19. Available from:
  15. Enderle MD, Coerper S, Schweizer HP, Kopp AE, Thelen MH, Meisner C, et al. Correlation of imaging techniques to histopathology in patients with diabetic foot syndrome and clinical suspicion of chronic osteomyelitis. The role of high-resolution ultrasound. Diabetes Care. 1999; 22(2):294–9.
  16. Fass L. Imaging and cancer: A review. Mol Oncol [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 2(2):115–52. Available from:
  17. Braam A, Buljac-Samardzic M, Hilders CGJM, Wijngaarden JDH van. Collaboration Between Physicians from Different Medical Specialties in Hospital Settings: A Systematic Review. J Multidiscip Healthc [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Jul 21]; 15:2277–300. Available from:
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

Get our health newsletter

Get daily health and wellness advice from our medical team.
Your privacy is important to us. Any information you provide to this website may be placed by us on our servers. If you do not agree do not provide the information.

Sarah Nadiri

Masters in Cancer, MSc University College London, London

Sarah is a registered biomedical scientist with a specialty in cancer research studies. She has five years experience working in various research facilities such as the Cancer Institute and The Francis Crick Institute. Additionally she has experience working in clinics, in various hospital labs around London and various intermediary care roles within the NHS. She joined Klarity in February and is currently contributing as a medical writer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
Klarity is a citizen-centric health data management platform that enables citizens to securely access, control and share their own health data. Klarity Health Library aims to provide clear and evidence-based health and wellness related informative articles. 
Klarity / Managed Self Ltd
Alum House
5 Alum Chine Road
Westbourne Bournemouth BH4 8DT
VAT Number: 362 5758 74
Company Number: 10696687

Phone Number:

 +44 20 3239 9818