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.
Ultrasound is used for many reasons, including to:
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.
Most ultrasound exams require no preparation. However, there are a few exceptions:
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.
Before your ultrasound begins, you may be asked to do the following:
You'll be asked to lie on an examination table.
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:
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.
A typical ultrasound exam takes from 30 minutes to an hour.
This ultrasound shows a breast cyst.
An ultrasound uses sound waves to create an image. This ultrasound shows a liver tumor.
This ultrasound shows gallstones.
These images show how ultrasound can help guide a needle into a tumor (left), where material is injected (right) to destroy tumor cells.
During a transvaginal ultrasound, your doctor or a medical technician inserts a wandlike device (transducer) into your vagina while you lie on your back on an exam table. The transducer emits sound waves that generate images of your pelvic organs.
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.