An ultrasound is a safe and effective way to examine any soft tissue in the body to help diagnose a wide variety of conditions. Here’s what to know before your next appointment.
If you require medical imaging to assess an illness, diagnose an injury or confirm a pregnancy, you might be referred for an ultrasound. A non-invasive procedure, ultrasound imaging is considered safe and low-risk according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
If you’re wondering what an ultrasound exam is like or what kind of results it might reveal, this article will examine:
What is an ultrasound and how does it work?
A diagnostic ultrasound is an imaging test that uses sound waves to capture internal images of your body. The ultrasound technician uses a wand-like instrument called a transducer to transmit sound waves into your body through a gel coating. When those high-frequency sound waves come into contact with your internal structures and tissues, they bounce back and create echoes which are then compiled into images you can see live on a monitor.
Ultrasounds are considered safe and non-invasive procedures. Since they use sound waves rather than radiation (like X-rays), they are also deemed very low-risk. The procedure is also sometimes called a sonogram, and the technician is a sonographer. After the scan, the technician will send the images to a radiologist, who interprets the images and adds findings into a report. The images and report are then shared with your referring physician, who will discuss them with you at a follow-up appointment.
Depending on what type of images need to be captured, an ultrasound can be administered a few different ways, including:
- External: The most common method has the technician coat the body part being scanned with gel, then running the transducer over the surface of your skin. The wand may feel cool, but there will be no pain or sensation from the sound waves. Many pregnancy ultrasounds are transabdominal, meaning they are taken from the surface of the abdomen.
- Internal: If the area requiring imaging is deep in the body or very small, the transducer might be inserted inside the body to better capture images. Some early pregnancy ultrasounds are taken transvaginally, for example, meaning the transducer is coated in gel and then inserted into the vagina.
- Endoscopic: Pairing ultrasound technology with an endoscope, a thin, flexible camera inserted through the esophagus, allows technicians to capture images deep inside the upper GI tract and digestive system.
Are ultrasounds safe?
Ultrasounds use sound waves to capture images making them a very safe scanning method, especially during pregnancy.
There are many reasons you might be referred for an ultrasound, including:
- Diagnosis: ultrasound imaging is often needed to properly diagnose internal conditions.
- Image-guided biopsy: the live image provided by an ultrasound helps the doctor correctly target the needle when taking a biopsy.
- Injury: an ultrasound scan can help doctors locate the site of an injury as well as examine the scope and extent.
- Pregnancy: since they don’t use radiation, ultrasounds are a safe way to monitor fetal development and maternal health during pregnancy (see our pregnancy ultrasound series).
- Supplemental imaging: ultrasounds are often used in tandem with other medical imaging techniques to ensure accuracy or clarification.
Limitations of ultrasounds
Because sound waves travel well through liquid, ultrasounds can monitor blood flow and provide excellent views of soft tissues and organs. However, they are less effective when examining extremely dense tissue such as bone, or air-filled tissue like lungs.
Depending on your particular situation and needs, you may also require other imaging, such as an X-ray, an MRI or a CT scan. Or you may be sent for an ultrasound for supplemental imaging after one of those scans, in order to provide clarification or establish a diagnosis.
Types of ultrasounds
Ultrasounds have many applications and can be used to examine many body parts and organs. Here’s a breakdown of the various types of ultrasound you might have:
- Abdominal ultrasound: an abdominal ultrasound captures images of the gallbladder, liver, pancreas, spleen and the blood vessels in your abdominal cavity.
- Ankle/foot ultrasound: a foot ultrasound can pinpoint the precise location of any joint or tissue damage or blood flow blockages, as well as monitor the treatment of injuries.
- Breast ultrasound: if the results of your mammogram are unclear or inconclusive, an ultrasound can provide supplemental imaging and clarification.
- Doppler: a specialized ultrasound that examines and measures how your blood is flowing and to check for any blockages.
- Heart ultrasound: also called an echocardiogram, a heart ultrasound helps doctors assess both the function and the structure of your heart.
- Musculoskeletal ultrasound: often used to diagnose and treat degenerative conditions, musculoskeletal ultrasounds capture images of joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves and tendons.
- Kidney ultrasound: a kidney (or renal) ultrasound provides images of the kidney structure and function, to help identify or assess kidney disorders.
- Knee ultrasound: an ultrasound can help a doctor locate and identify cysts, injuries and tissue tears in your knee.
- Obstetric/Pregnancy ultrasound: you’ll have at least two ultrasounds during pregnancy, to monitor maternal health and the developmental progress of the fetus. High-risk pregnancies (e.g. those pregnant with twins or multiples) often have more.
- Pediatric ultrasound: because they are non-invasive and radiation-free, ultrasounds are often used for the medical imaging of children.
- Pelvic ultrasound: an ultrasound of your pelvic cavity examines the bladder, colon, rectum and reproductive organs including the fallopian tubes, ovaries and uterus.
- Prostate ultrasound: if you have any abnormal symptoms, a prostate ultrasound can help identify or locate prostate cancer, as well as monitor treatment progress.
- Thyroid ultrasound: your thyroid gland is small, so an ultrasound provides valuable images to help diagnose or assess any abnormal conditions like cancer or nodules.
- Ultrasound-guided biopsy: when taking a biopsy, doctors often use live ultrasound images to guide needle placement.
- Vascular ultrasound: used to evaluate blood flow in arteries, veins and capillaries, vascular ultrasounds often combine regular and Doppler ultrasounds.
- 3D & 4D ultrasound: a 3D ultrasound captures regular ultrasound images from multiple angles and compiles them into a single, three-dimensional image. A 4D ultrasound is a moving version of a 3D ultrasound image.
What to expect during an ultrasound appointment
If you’re referred for an ultrasound, you’ll likely book the appointment yourself at a local imaging clinic. Your doctor’s office should be able to help you locate an imaging clinic in your area. Note that not every clinic offers every type of ultrasound.
Wear loose, comfortable clothing, as you might need to change into a gown and remove any jewelry. Most ultrasound appointments take between 30-60 minutes, depending on the complexity of the scan. The exact preparation requirements for your ultrasound will depend on what type of scan you need.
- External ultrasound: the technician will spread conductive gel on your skin, then rub the transducer through it to create and capture images. Since sound travels well in liquid, you may be asked to drink plenty of water before your appointment and have a full bladder.
- Internal ultrasound: the sonographer will coat a transducer wand with gel and then insert it vaginally or rectally. You may be required to have an enema before a rectal procedure.
- Endoscopic ultrasound: you might have an IV inserted before your exam, to provide fluids and a relaxant. The doctor will insert a thin, flexible endoscope through your mouth and down your throat. You’ll likely be asked to refrain from eating or drinking for 6-12 hours before your scan.
When you book your appointment, ask the clinic about the requirements for your particular ultrasound so you can be fully prepared on the day.
Questions to ask during an ultrasound exam
The technician is not allowed to answer any questions about the findings of your ultrasound, but you can ask questions about the procedure itself, like:
- How long will this appointment last?
- Can anyone join me in the exam room? How many people?
- How will you share the results with my healthcare team? When will they get the images and report?
Questions to ask during your ultrasound follow-up appointment
Your sonographer isn’t legally allowed to explain the results of your scan. Instead, they will forward the images to the radiologist, who will interpret them and prepare both the images and a report for your referring physician. Your doctor will then discuss the findings with you at a follow-up appointment.
At that appointment, you’ll want to ask your doctor several follow-up questions, depending on the kind of ultrasound you had. For instance:
- What did the ultrasound show?
- Was there anything unusual or unexpected?
- For an injury: How mild or severe is it? How long do you expect healing to take?
- For monitoring an illness: Is there any improvement? Do we need to adjust the course of treatment?
- For an obstetric ultrasound: Am I pregnant? Is fetal development progressing as expected?
- What is the next course of action?
How do I access my ultrasound results?
If you want early access to your ultrasound images, possibly even before your follow-up appointment, you can use PocketHealth.
PocketHealth gives you secure access to see, share and store all your health images and information in one place. You can view your ultrasound images and even share them with family or medical specialists.
If you’d like some assistance deciphering the terms in your ultrasound report, PocketHeath’s Report Reader can help. Report Reader provides definitions of medical terminology so you can better understand your report. It also spotlights any follow-up recommendations so you’ll be fully informed when you discuss your results with your physician. Access your records today.
Take control of your health
Ultrasound images provide valuable information to identify illnesses and injuries and to assess their treatment. Having access to your ultrasound images and report means you can have better, more informed conversations with your doctor about the next steps in your health journey.
PocketHealth gives you that fast, easy access, so you’ll always be prepared and in control of your own health.