An ultrasound is safe and painless, and produces images of the inside of the body using sound waves. Ultrasound imaging, also called ultrasound scanning or sonography, involves the use of a small transducer (probe) and ultrasound gel placed directly on the skin. The probe transmits high-frequency sound waves through the gel into the body. The transducer collects sounds that bounce back, and a computer uses those sound waves to create an image. Ultrasound examinations do not use ionizing radiation, like x-rays do, so there is no radiation exposure to the patient. Because ultrasound images are captured in real-time, they can show the structure and movement of the body’s internal organs, as well as blood flowing through blood vessels.
Ultrasound imaging is a noninvasive medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions.
Ultrasound imaging of the breast produces a picture of the internal structures of the breast.
Doppler ultrasound is a special ultrasound technique that evaluates blood flow through a blood vessel, including the body’s major arteries and veins in the abdomen, arms, legs, neck and head in infants and children.
During a breast ultrasound examination, the sonographer or physician performing the test may use Doppler techniques to evaluate blood flow, or lack of flow, in any breast mass. Sometimes this provides additional information as to the cause of the mass.
Ultrasound can be used as a screening tool for women who:
- Are at high risk for breast cancer and unable to undergo an MRI examination.
- Are pregnant or should not be exposed to x-rays, which is necessary for a mammogram.
How Is the Procedure Performed?
You will lie on your back on the examining table, and may be asked to raise your arm above your head.
After you are positioned on the examination table, the radiologist or sonographer will apply a warm water-based gel to the area of the body being studied. The gel will help the transducer make secure contact with the body, and eliminate air pockets between the transducer and the skin that can block the sound waves from passing into your body. The transducer is placed on the body and moved back and forth over the area of interest until the desired images are captured.
There is usually no discomfort from pressure as the transducer is pressed against the area being examined. However, if scanning is performed over an area of tenderness, you may feel pressure or minor pain from the transducer.
Doppler sonography is performed using the same transducer.
Once the imaging is complete, the clear ultrasound gel will be wiped off your skin. The ultrasound gel does not stain or discolor clothing.
Who Interprets the Results and How Do I Get Them?
A radiologist, a physician specifically trained to supervise and interpret radiology examinations, will analyze the images and send a signed report to your primary care physician, or to the physician or other healthcare provider who requested the exam, and he/she will share the results with you. In some cases the radiologist may discuss results with you at the conclusion of your examination.
Follow-up examinations may be necessary, and your doctor will explain the exact reason why another exam is requested.
What Are the Benefits Versus Risks?
- Most ultrasound scanning is noninvasive, so there are no needles or injections.
- An ultrasound exam may be temporarily uncomfortable, but it is almost never painful.
- Ultrasound is widely available, easy-to-use, and less expensive than other imaging methods.
- Ultrasound imaging is safe and does not use any ionizing radiation.
- Ultrasound scanning gives a clear picture of soft tissues that do not show up well on x-ray images.
- Ultrasound provides real-time imaging, making it a good tool for guiding minimally invasive procedures such as needle biopsies and fluid aspiration.
- Ultrasound imaging can help detect lesions in women with dense breasts.
- Ultrasound may help detect and classify a breast lesion that cannot be interpreted adequately through mammography alone.
- Using ultrasound, physicians are able to determine that many areas of clinical concern are due to normal tissue, such as fat lobules, or benign cysts. For most women 30 or older, a mammogram will be used together with ultrasound. For women under 30, ultrasound alone is often sufficient to determine whether an area of concern needs a biopsy or not.
- Standard diagnostic ultrasound has no known harmful effects.
- Interpretation of a breast ultrasound examination may lead to additional procedures such as follow-up ultrasound and/or aspiration or biopsy. Many of the areas thought to be of concern on ultrasound turn out to be non-cancerous.