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Understanding Ultrasound

What is an Ultrasound

Ultrasound uses sound waves to generate pictures of many parts of the body. The pictures are created by applying a warm gel to the skin and then moving a transducer (also know as an ultrasound probe) over the body part being examined. It is a completely safe and painless procedure. You cannot hear or feel the sound waves. Nearly every organ in the body can be examined by ultrasound and there are many different types of ultrasound exams. The type of exam will vary depending on information that your doctor needs.

Types of Ultrasound Exams

Obstetrical Ultrasound: Ultrasound can be used to safely exam babies before they are born. Early in pregnancy ultrasound is used to confirm the well being of the fetus before you can feel the baby moving and before your doctor can hear the heartbeat. After about 16 weeks, when the bones and internal organs have developed, ultrasound can assess if the baby’s growth and development are progressing normally. Examining babies while in the womb is completely safe and the information provided can be very helpful to your doctor.

Abdominal and Pelvic Ultrasound: There are many organs in the abdomen and pelvis and the scope of your exam will be tailored to your doctor’s request. The right upper quadrantultrasound focuses on the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts and pancreas. This is one of the most commonly ordered ultrasound exams and is the very best way to see if you have gallstones. Liver and bile duct abnormalities are also easily seen on an ultrasound. A renal ultrasound includes pictures of both kidneys and the bladder. A renal ultrasound is often the first test ordered if blood tests show that the kidneys may not be working properly or when blood is discovered in the urine. A pelvic ultrasound focuses on the uterus and ovaries. Abnormal uterine bleeding or pelvic pain are common reasons to have a pelvic ultrasound. Sonohysterography is a new technique used to examine the inside of the uterus and is performed after a sterile saline solution is carefully introduced into the uterus through a tiny catheter in the cervix. This exam can potentially better characterize and localize an abnormality which is seen or suspected on a routine pelvic exam.

Doppler Ultrasound: Doppler ultrasound is a special way of examining blood vessels and can be used to study arteries and/or veins in any part of the body. Doppler ultrasound can be used to detect areas of narrowing in the arteries leading to the brain, the abdominal organs or the extremities. Doppler ultrasound can also be used to detect blood clots within veins which are potentially life threatening abnormalities.

Special Preparations

You may be asked to follow certain instructions to best prepare for your ultrasound exam. The instructions will vary depending on the information your doctor needs and the type of exam you will have. Many exams require no preparation at all.

Gallbladder: Best performed after an 8 hour fast so that the gallbladder is distended. Eating makes the gallbladder shrink and makes it harder to see small gallstones. The larger upper abdominal organs such as the liver, spleen and kidneys are less affected by eating and are generally well seen whether you have fasted or not.

Transabdominal Pelvic Ultrasound: A full bladder provides an ultrasound "window" for seeing deep into the pelvis with the probe placed on the lower abdomen. Your bladder should be full but not uncomfortable. For most women, this means drinking a few glasses of water during the hour leading up to your exam.

Transvaginal Pelvic Ultrasound: This exam is done with the bladder empty. It is performed with a small ultrasound probe placed in the vagina, often after the routine transabdominal pelvic exam. The transvaginal pelvic exam doesn’t let us see very far into the pelvis, but the resolution of what we do see may be better. The two exams complement each other and both are often performed during the same visit.

Doppler Exam of the Renal Arteries: The renal arteries sit deep in the abdomen. In the unprepared patient, bowel gas usually obscures the arteries and the exam is unsuccessful. The exam is best performed after fasting at least 8 hours, taking an antiflatulent such as Mylecon, and drinking a few glasses of water just before the exam to improve hydration. Nearly every organ in the body can be examined by ultrasound and there are many different types of ultrasound exams.

Exams that do not Require Preparation

Obstetrical Ultrasound:
The amniotic fluid provides the "ultrasound window" to see your baby. A full bladder is not necessary.

Renal Ultrasound

Extremity Ultrasound, including Doppler exams.

Small parts: breast, thyroid, testicle