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Diagnostic ultrasound, also called sonography or diagnostic medical sonography, is an imaging method that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of structures within your body. The images can provide valuable information for diagnosing and treating a variety of diseases and conditions.

Most ultrasound examinations are done using an ultrasound device outside your body, though some involve placing a device inside your body.

Why It's Done

Ultrasound is used for many reasons, including to:

  • View the uterus and ovaries during pregnancy and monitor the developing baby's health

  • Diagnose gallbladder disease

  • Evaluate blood flow

  • Guide a needle for biopsy or tumor treatment

  • Examine a breast lump

  • Check your thyroid gland

  • Detect genital and prostate problems

  • Assess joint inflammation (synovitis)

  • Evaluate metabolic bone disease  


Diagnostic ultrasound is a safe procedure that uses low-power sound waves. There are no known risks.

Ultrasound is a valuable tool, but it has limitations. Sound doesn't travel well through air or bone, so ultrasound isn't effective at imaging body parts that have gas in them or are hidden by bone, such as the lungs or head. To view these areas, your doctor may order other imaging tests, such as CT or MRI scans or X-rays.

How You Prepare


Most ultrasound exams require no preparation. However, there are a few exceptions:

  • For some scans, such as a gallbladder ultrasound, your doctor may ask that you not eat or drink for up to six hours before the exam.

  • Others, such as a pelvic ultrasound, may require a full bladder. You may need to drink up to six glasses of water two hours before the exam and not urinate until the exam is completed.

  • Young children may need additional preparation. When scheduling an ultrasound for yourself or your child, ask your doctor if there are any specific instructions you'll need to follow.


Clothing and Personal Items

Wear loose clothing to your ultrasound appointment. You may be asked to remove jewelry during your ultrasound, so it's a good idea to leave any valuables at home.

What You Can Expect Before The Procedure

Before your ultrasound begins, you may be asked to do the following:

  • Remove any jewelry from the area being examined.

  • Remove some or all of your clothing.

  • Change into a gown.

  • You'll be asked to lie on an examination table.

During The Procedure

Gel is applied to your skin over the area being examined. It helps prevent air pockets, which can block the sound waves that create the images. This water-based gel is easy to remove from skin and, if needed, clothing.

A trained technician (sonographer) presses a small, hand-held device (transducer) against the area being studied and moves it as needed to capture the images. The transducer sends sound waves into your body, collects the ones that bounce back and sends them to a computer, which creates the images. Sometimes, ultrasounds are done inside your body. 

In this case, the transducer is attached to a probe that's inserted into a natural opening in your body. Examples include:

  • Transesophageal echocardiogram. A transducer, inserted into your esophagus, obtains heart images. It's usually done while you are sedated.

  • Transrectal ultrasound. This test creates images of the prostate by placing a special transducer into the rectum.

  • Transvaginal ultrasound. A special transducer is gently inserted into the vagina to get a quick look at the uterus and ovaries.

Ultrasound is usually painless. However, you may experience mild discomfort as the sonographer guides the transducer over your body, especially if you're required to have a full bladder, or inserts it into your body.


When your exam is complete, a doctor trained to interpret imaging studies (radiologist) analyzes the images and sends a report to your doctor. Your doctor will share the results with you.

You should be able to return to normal activities immediately after an ultrasound.


Arterial Duplex Ultrasound

An arterial duplex ultrasound uses sound waves to create a color map of the arteries in your legs to identify:

  • Narrowing of your vessels that may be causing leg pain when walking

  • Resting leg pain

  • Foot, ankle, heel or toe ulcers

  • Skin discoloration

Cost: $250

Abdominal Ultrasound

An abdominal ultrasound can help your doctor see many organs in your abdomen. Your doctor may recommend this test if you have a problem in any of these body areas:

  • Blood vessels in the abdomen

  • Gallbladder

  • Intestines

  • Kidneys

  • Liver

  • Pancreas

  • Spleen

Types of Ultrasonds

Carotid Ultrasound

Your doctor will recommend carotid ultrasound if you have transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) or certain types of stroke and may recommend a carotid ultrasound if you have medical conditions that increase the risk of stroke, including:

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes

  • High cholesterol

  • Family history of stroke or heart disease

  • Recent transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke

  • Abnormal sound in carotid arteries (bruit), detected by your doctor using a stethoscope

  • Coronary artery disease

Aorta Ultrasound 

An ultrasound of the abdominal aorta is a non-invasive, painless test that uses high-frequency sound waves to image the "aorta," the main blood vessel leading away from the heart. Your doctor may request an aorta ultrasound if you have any of the following: 

  • Aneurysms

  • High blood pressure and coronary artery disease

  • Men over 60 years old

  • Smokers

  • Abdominal pain

  • Back pain

Breast Ultrasound 

A breast ultrasound is most often done to find out if a problem found by a mammogram or physical exam of the breast may be a cyst filled with fluid or a solid tumor. 


Your healthcare provider may also use ultrasound to look at nearby lymph nodes, help guide a needle during a biopsy, or to remove fluid from a cyst. Ultrasound may be used if you:

  • Have particularly dense breast tissue. A mammogram may not be able to see through the tissue.

  • Are pregnant. Mammography uses radiation, but ultrasound does not. This makes it safer for the fetus.

  • Are younger than age 25

Kidney Ultrasound

A kidney ultrasound is a noninvasive diagnostic exam that produces images, which are used to assess the size, shape, and location of the kidneys. Ultrasound may also be used to assess blood flow to the kidneys. Kidney ultrasounds may be requested if you have: 

  • Flank pain

  • Abnormal renal function

  • Dilated upper urinary tract

  • Hematuria

  • Postoperative renal transplant patients

  • Size or structure

  • Kidney stone

  • Cyst, mass

  • Urinary Obstruction

OB/Pregnancy Ultrasound

Obstetrical ultrasound is a useful clinical test to:

  • establish the presence of a living embryo/fetus

  • estimate the age of the pregnancy

  • diagnose congenital abnormalities of the fetus

  • evaluate the position of the fetus

  • evaluate the position of the placenta

  • determine if there are multiple pregnancies

  • determine the amount of amniotic fluid around the baby

  • check for opening or shortening of the cervix

  • assess fetal growth

  • assess fetal well-being

Pelvic Ultrasound

Pelvic ultrasound may be used for measurement and evaluation of female pelvic organs. Ultrasound assessment of the pelvis may include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries

  • Thickness, echogenicity (darkness or lightness of the image related to the density of the tissue), and presence of fluids or masses in the endometrium, myometrium (uterine muscle tissue), fallopian tubes, or in or near the bladder

  • Length and thickness of the cervix

  • Changes in bladder shape

  • Blood flow through pelvic organs

Renal Artery Ultrasound

A renal artery ultrasound evaluates the arteries that supply blood to the kidneys.  Images are acquired using a hand held probe (transducer) that is applied to the abdomen. 

This test is used to:

  • Look for blockages or narrowing of the renal arteries which may contribute to hypertension or renal dysfunction.

  • Monitor existing renal artery disease, or follow-up after surgical intervention.

Scrotal Ultrasound

A scrotal ultrasound can show:

  • the size of the testicles

  • signs of injury to the testicles

  • abnormally swollen veins in the scrotum (varicocele)

  • fluid collection around the testicle (hydrocele)

  • twisting of the testicle, which cuts off its blood supply (testicular torsion)

  • infection or inflammation in the epididymis (epidydimitis) or in the testicle (orchitis)

  • a cyst or tumor in the scrotum

  • an absent or undescended testicle

Thyroid Ultrasound

An ultrasound of the thyroid is typically used:

  • to determine if a lump in the neck is arising from the thyroid or an adjacent structure

  • to analyze the appearance of thyroid nodules and determine if they are the more common benign nodule or if the nodule has features that require a biopsy. If biopsy is required, ultrasound-guided fine needle aspiration can help improve accuracy of the biopsy.

  • to look for additional nodules in patients with one or more nodules felt on physical exam

  • to see if a thyroid nodule has substantially grown over time

Venous Doppler Ultrasound

Doppler ultrasound images can help the physician to see and evaluate:

  • blockages to blood flow (such as clots)

  • narrowing of vessels

  • tumors and congenital vascular malformations

  • reduced or absent blood flow to various organs, such as the testes or ovary

  • increased blood flow, which may be a sign of infection

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