Patient Blog

Abdominal Ultrasounds: How to Prepare and What to Expect

July 4, 2024 | PocketHealth
A technician performing an abdominal ultrasound

Your doctor may refer you for abdominal imaging if you’re experiencing pain or other symptoms in your abdomen. An abdominal ultrasound is often recommended to detect kidney, gallbladder, or pancreatic conditions and can be used to check on the health of the mother and fetus during pregnancy.

Preparing for an ultrasound may seem complicated, but our guide will get you to your appointment and help to reduce stress about it.


What is an abdominal ultrasound?

An ultrasound is a low-risk imaging procedure that uses sound waves to create clear pictures of the internal soft structures of your body. High frequency sound waves bounce off the organs in your abdominal cavity, helping to create an accurate image.

An abdominal ultrasound can help your doctor explore and diagnose many different conditions or abnormalities because your abdominal cavity contains several organs, including the liver, bile ducts, and intestines. The sound waves used during an ultrasound can also indicate the blood flow within the aorta and other blood vessels.

Your doctor may refer you for,

  • A complete abdominal ultrasound: A whole abdominal ultrasound helps your physician explore the many organs that are contained in your abdominal cavity: liver, pancreas, kidneys, bladder or intestines, or to examine the aorta or inferior vena cava.
  • Partial abdominal ultrasounds: In some cases, your doctor may need to examine only your bladder or ovaries, or pancreas and spleen. In these cases, your ultrasound will focus on the area of your abdominal cavity containing those organs or structures.
  • A prenatal ultrasound: Expectant mothers attend regular abdominal ultrasound appointments so that their OB-GYN or midwife can assess the health of the fetus and mother.

In each case, you’ll receive a requisition form with personalized instructions, and you’ll have a follow-up appointment to discuss your results with your referring physician.

An technician performing a prenatal ultrasound

A technician performing a prenatal ultrasound

What can an abdominal ultrasound detect?

An abdominal ultrasound exam is a painless procedure used to examine the internal organs and structures inside and near the abdominal cavity. Abdominal imaging can show irregularities or injury to the spleen, liver, kidneys and other organs. It can also assess the health of the mother and fetus during pregnancy.

Your health care provider may recommend an abdominal ultrasound for one of the following reasons:

  • Assess and track treatment and response: Abdominal imaging can be used to determine which treatment will be most effective and how a patient responds to treatment.
  • Biopsy guidance: A doctor can more easily determine the size, shape and placement of masses prior to biopsy by using ultrasound scan images.
  • Determine irregularities in the spleen, liver, kidneys, gallbladder, ovaries or pancreas: Injuries or irregularities in these organs will show up on the images produced by an abdominal ultrasound.
  • Diagnose medical conditions: Kidney stones, gallstones, gas buildup, ovarian cysts, a hernia and certain types of aneurysms can all be diagnosed via abdominal imaging.
  • Evaluate the health of the mother and fetus during pregnancy: A pregnancy ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to determine the size, position and health of the fetus.
  • Examine the blood vessels that lead to major organs: The inferior vena cava and abdominal aorta can be detailed using an abdominal ultrasound, and the images can show whether an aortic aneurysm is present and check blood flow.
  • Investigate growths: Tumors or cysts can show up on an abdominal ultrasound, including ovarian cysts.
An ultrasound scan of the upper abdomen showing a kidney

An ultrasound scan of the upper abdomen showing a kidney

Abdominal ultrasound preparation

Preparing for an ultrasound can feel overwhelming and you might have trouble keeping track of all the dos and don’ts. Don’t worry, we’ve outlined everything you need to know so you can attend your appointment with confidence and ease.

What to wear to your appointment

When you arrive at your ultrasound appointment, you’ll be directed to a private room to remove your clothes and given a hospital gown to change into. It’s easiest to wear comfortable clothing you can easily change in and out of. In some cases, like during a prenatal ultrasound, you may be asked to leave your clothes on. In these cases, loose fitting clothing makes it easier for the technician to access your abdomen.

Fasting, dietary restrictions, and medication

Typically, you’ll be asked to fast for 8-12 hours before your ultrasound appointment, but in some cases, you’ll only need to avoid certain types of food. Always check your referral for specific instructions about diet before your abdominal ultrasound appointment.

If you do eat before your appointment, let the clinic staff know. In some cases, you may need to reschedule your ultrasound as your results will not be accurate.

Sometimes prescription or over-the-counter medications can impact your test results. Ask your referring doctor about your medications beforehand, as you may need to skip a dose prior to your appointment.

Water and other fluid intake

In most cases, having a full bladder will help the ultrasound technician capture accurate images, so you’ll be asked to drink water or another clear fluid before your appointment. Coffee, milk or thick liquids like smoothies should be avoided.

For bladder or kidney ultrasounds, you’ll need to drink a certain amount of water within a specific time frame prior to your appointment. Check your referral or requisition form for specific instructions.

Bring your requisition form

Don’t forget to bring your referral or requisition form with you to your appointment. If you have your form with you, you’ll avoid delays when you arrive. Be ready to provide your health card or another appropriate form of ID (depending where you live) at check-in. The ultrasound clinic will need to see your identification, even if the information is available on your form.

What to expect during your scan

An abdominal ultrasound is a quick procedure; most patients can expect to finish the exam in under 30 minutes. Take a look below to understand exactly what your appointment will entail.

Before your ultrasound

You can begin preparing for your ultrasound appointment even before you arrive at the clinic. Calling ahead with questions can provide clarity about your exam. Below are some of the most common questions.

  • How long will my appointment take?
  • Do I need to wear a mask during my appointment?
  • Can I bring a support person with me into the procedure room?
  • When will the imaging clinic send my results to my doctor?
  • How soon can I expect to see my results?

You may also want to ask for parking instructions or the closest route by transit to ensure you arrive in good time for your appointment.

During the procedure

Your abdominal ultrasound will be performed by an ultrasound technician in a private room. The technician will ask you to recline on the examination table and expose your abdomen so they can apply a clear gel to your skin, which may feel cool. They will then pass a small transducer over the area, pausing every few seconds to capture a clear picture. You’ll usually hear a beep as each image is captured.

Ultrasound technician adding gel to the transducer

Ultrasound technician prepping for the scan

Before the technician begins, you’ll be able to ask any questions you might have, including,

  • How long will the scan take? Simple scans are quicker than complicated abdominal scans covering multiple organs. The technician will have your referral and be able to give you an accurate timeline.
  • Is the procedure painful? Abdominal ultrasounds are typically not painful, but you can ask if you’re likely to experience any discomfort.
  • Will I need to visit the washroom during the exam? In some cases, you may begin the ultrasound with a full bladder but will be asked to visit the washroom to empty your bladder before continuing.
  • Can I bring a support person into the imaging room? For some patients, it may be helpful to have their caregiver present to assist in moving the patient onto and off the table or into different positions.
  • Can we stop the procedure if I feel anxious? Your technician may be able to take short breaks if the procedure makes you anxious but speak with them in advance so they can prepare the breaks around capturing the best images.

If you’re getting abdominal imaging because you’re pregnant, you may wish to ask the attending technician additional questions,

  • Can I take my own pictures of the scan images?
  • Can I bring a non-medical support person into the room?
  • Will my ultrasound be external or internal?

After the exam

After the exam, you’ll have a moment alone to wipe off any ultrasound gel residue from your skin. The technician will then direct you back to the change room so you can change into your clothes.

You’ll likely feel just fine after your appointment and can resume normal activities right away. However, you may need to use the washroom to empty your bladder or eat a snack containing protein if you’ve fasted prior to the appointment.

When will I get my results?

Waiting for your follow-up appointment to discuss your abdominal ultrasound results can be nerve-wracking, and you may have to wait a week or more to review the results with your doctor.

If you’d like to review your results as soon as possible, you can use PocketHealth to quickly and easily access your images and report as soon as the radiologist finishes their assessment, often before your follow-up appointment.

Understanding my report

Ultrasound results aren’t light reading. You can begin to understand what you see by learning how to interpret your results, but your referring doctor will be able to give you an in-depth analysis and treatment options, if necessary.

Who interprets the results?

A radiologist will assess your ultrasound exam images and create a report detailing what they see. Your ultrasound results are then sent to your referring doctor, who will contact you to book a follow-up appointment to discuss the details.

Having quicker access to your ultrasound results allows you to confidently discuss your results at your follow-up appointment, but you should always go over what you’ve read with your doctor.

You can ask your doctor any questions you have about your ultrasound results, including,

  • What are my next steps, and will I need treatment?
  • Will I require further testing?
  • Should I have another ultrasound to follow up on these results?
  • Can you suggest a resource to clarify the complex terminology in my report?
  • Do you recommend a second opinion?

To support you further in this process, PocketHealth’s MyCare Navigator offers valuable insights into your health. It not only suggests personalized questions for your doctor but also alerts you to follow-up recommendations. It also gives you access to preventative screening tools, helping you stay on top of your next steps.

How to access and understand your abdominal ultrasound results

Medical reports can be complex. You will likely encounter unfamiliar medical terminology in your results, but PocketHealth Report Reader can help. Report Reader provides definitions for the medical terms in your results, making it easier to comprehend your results.

Understanding what you see in your ultrasound images while you’re interpreting your results lets you gain a more thorough understanding. Our article can help you better understand your ultrasound images.

PocketHealth can help guide you to a deeper understanding of your own body and medical test results but be sure to discuss your results with your doctor at your follow-up appointment. Only your doctor can assess your results against your medical history, accurately diagnose a condition and give you safe medical advice.

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