An ultrasound is a safe, painless and noninvasive medical test. It helps doctors diagnose and treat many medical conditions. Ultrasounds do not use radiation, like X-rays do, so there is no risk of radiation exposure.
Ultrasound imaging is also called ultrasound scanning or sonography. Ultrasounds produce images of the inside of the body using sound waves. The test is done by a specially trained medical technologist, called a sonographer. During the exam, the sonographer puts a small amount of ultrasound gel on your skin and runs a small probe, called a transducer, over the area.
The probe sends high-frequency sound waves through the gel into the body. A computer collects sound waves that bounce back, and uses those sound waves to create an image. The computer captures images in real-time. As a result, they can show the structure and movement of the body’s internal organs. They can also show blood flowing through blood vessels.
Doppler ultrasound is a special ultrasound technique that evaluates blood flow through a blood vessel. This includes the body’s major arteries and veins in the abdomen, arms, legs, neck and head in infants and children.
How Is an Ultrasound Performed?
The sonographer will position you on an examination table. He or she will then put a warm water-based gel on the area of the body being studied. The gel will help the probe make secure contact with the body. It will also eliminate air pockets between the probe and the skin. These can block the sound waves from passing into your body. The sonographer will place the probe on your body and move it back and forth over the area of interest until it captures the images.
Patients usually don’t feel any discomfort during the test. However, you may feel pressure or minor pain if the probe passes over an area that’s already sore or tender.
Once the imaging is complete, the sonographer wipes the clear ultrasound gel off your skin. The ultrasound gel does not stain or discolor clothing.
Who Interprets the Results and How Do I Get Them?
A radiologist is a doctor who is specially trained to supervise and interpret radiology examinations. Your radiologist will analyze the images and send a signed report to the doctor or other health care provider asked for the exam. He or she will share the results with you. In some cases the radiologist may discuss results with you as soon as your test is finished.
If a follow-up examination is necessary, your doctor will explain why he or she asked for another exam.
What Are the Benefits Versus Risks?
Like any medical test, ultrasounds carry both benefits and risks.
- Most ultrasounds are noninvasive, which means the test doesn’t break the skin.
- An ultrasound exam may be temporarily uncomfortable, but it is almost never painful.
- It widely available, easy-to-use, and less expensive than other imaging methods.
- The test is safe and does not use any ionizing radiation.
- The scan gives a clear picture of soft tissues that do not show up well on x-ray images.
- It provides real-time imaging, making it a good tool for guiding minimally invasive procedures such as needle biopsies and fluid aspiration.
- Using ultrasound, physicians can determine that many areas of clinical concern are due to normal tissue, like fat lobules, or benign cysts.
- 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.