What is an ultrasound?

An ultrasound scan, also referred to as a sonogram, and diagnostic sonography, is a device that uses high frequency sound waves to create an image of some part of the inside of the body to detect problems in the stomach, liver, heart, tendons, muscles, joints and/or blood vessels.

Sound waves, rather than radiation are used, ultrasound scans are safe.

What can ultrasound scans be used for?

Ultrasound is commonly used in medicine today. Health care professionals can use sonography for either diagnosis or treatment (therapeutic procedures), as well as for guidance during procedures that require intervention, such as biopsies.

A medical professional who performs ultrasound scans is called a Sonographer. Scans, or images, are then interpreted by radiologists. The sonographer usually holds a transducer; a hand-held device which is placed on the skin of the patient.

Sonography is also used to speed up care for patients with suspected gallstones or inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis). These patients usually come in with abdominal pain in the right upper quadrant.

Abdominal Sonography (gastroenterology) – The health care professional is able to see images of the spleen, kidneys, bile ducts, gall bladder, liver, aorta, inferior vena cava, pancreas and other solid organs located in the abdomen. If the appendix is swollen, as may be the case with appendicitis, it can sometimes show up in the imaging. Sonographers say that certain quantities of fat and gas in the bowel can sometimes block the ultrasound waves, making diagnosis more difficult.

Newborns (neonatology) – The sonographer can perform an ultrasound scan on an infant by placing the probe in the newborn’s fontanelle (soft spot in the skull) to check for abnormalities in the brain, hydrocephalus and preiventricular leukomalacia (a form of white-matter brain injury). As the fontanelle gets smaller in time, the quality of the images becomes poorer.

Neurology – Ultrasound may be used to measure blood flow in the carotid arteries. Known as carotid ultrasonography, the scan looks out for blood clots and atherosclerotic plaque build-up. A carotid duplex is a form of carotid ultrasonopgraphy using Duplex ultrasonography, which may include a Doppler ultrasound – a test which can reveal how blood cells move through the carotid arteries.

Urology – Ultrasound is used in urology for many purposes, such as checking how much urine remains in the patient’s bladder after going to the toilet. Organs in the pelvic region can be checked, including the uterus, testicles (to tell testicular torsion from epididymitis). In young adult male patients, ultrasound is sometimes used to distinguish hydrocele or varicocele from testicular cancer. Testicular cancer, even though highly curable, must be treated in order to preserve the man’s fertility and overall health.

Pelvic sonographies can be carried out internally or externally. In a male the internal sonogram may be inserted transrectally, while in a female transvaginally. Ultrasound scans of the pelvic floor can help the doctor determine the extent of, for example, a pelvic prolapse, incontinence or obstructed defecation. At higher frequencies, ultrasound can be used to break up kidney stones or crystals (nephrolithiasis).

Musculoskeletal sonography – This can be used to examine ligaments, bone surfaces, soft tissue masses, nerves, muscles and tendons.