Ultrasound is a scan used to study internal body structures. It works by sending out high frequency sound waves, directed at the internal body part being examined, and recording the reflected sound or 'echoes' to create an image. The sound waves are emitted from a small, vibrating crystal in a hand-held scanner. The high frequency of the sound means it can't be heard by the human ear. An ultrasound scan doesn't produce high quality images, but it is non-invasive and doesn't involve radiation. It is commonly used to study the abdominal organs, pelvic organs and breast tissue. Other names for ultrasound scan include sonogram and ultrasonography.

Different uses of the ultrasound scan

An ultrasound scan is most commonly used in the following instances

Abdominal scan

may be used to investigate abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, abnormal sounds and lumps. Structures that may be examined include the gallbladder, bile ducts, liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and large blood vessels. Structures that contain air (such as the stomach and bowels) can't be examined by this process, because air prevents the transfer of sound waves emitted by the scanner.

Pelvic scan

may be performed if a woman is suffering pain during sex, or has abnormal periods, fibroids, cysts or other conditions associated with the female reproductive system.

Pregnancy scan

used to check for fetal abnormalities (such as spina bifida), check the age and sex of the fetus, and monitor fetal growth and development. An ultrasound scan during pregnancy may need to be performed every three months (each trimester), according to the doctor's recommendations.

Other uses of ultrasound scan

bladder and urethral scans, breast scans (to further investigate an abnormality picked up by physical examination or mammogram) and a scan of the eye (to check its internal structures). A special type of ultrasound scan, called a Doppler ultrasound, is sometimes used to detect the speed and direction of blood flow in certain regions of the body.

Medical issues to consider

An ultrasound scan doesn't require any special preparation beforehand. However, you may need to have a full bladder prior to the scan. This will need to be checked with your doctor. A woman undergoing a breast ultrasound shouldn't apply powders or creams to her breasts on the day of the scan.

Ultrasound procedure

You will be asked to lie down on an examination table or bed. A gel is rubbed on the your skin in order to provide better contact between your body and the scanner, as some of the sound waves used don't pass through air. The technician then places the hand-held scanner on the body surface above the organ or tissue to be studied. The two-dimensional (or sometimes three-dimensional) pictures are shown instantly on a monitor. A slightly different procedure may be needed for some types of ultrasound. For example, a female patient undergoing an investigation of her reproductive system may have a vaginal scan, which involves gently inserting a slender scanner into her vagina. A breast scan may involve placing the breast in a tank of warm water while the scanner is positioned at the bottom of the tank.

Immediately after the ultrasound

An ultrasound scan usually takes around 15 to 20 minutes. After the procedure, you will be given paper towels (or something similar) to wipe off the gel. You can then get dressed. The results of the ultrasound scan are usually sent to your doctor, so you will have to make an appointment with them.

Possible complications

The ultrasound scan is a safe, non-invasive procedure that doesn't pose any known risks, side effects or complications.

Taking care of yourself at home

The scan itself is painless, drug-free and non-invasive, so there is no 'recovery time' needed. You can go about your normal business as soon as you've finished the scan.

Long term outlook

Treatment - if any - depends on the reason for your scan. For example, fibroids detected during the scan may be surgically removed (myomectomy), shrunk with drugs (including hormones), or simply monitored. Other conditions detected by ultrasound scan, such as abdominal masses, may need further tests or exploratory surgery.


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