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Ultrasound

Ultrasound is a type of scan that uses sound waves to produce images of the inside of your body. It’s used to detect changes in the appearance, size or outline of organs, tissues and vessels, or to detect abnormal masses, such as tumours.

An ultrasound scanner looks a bit like a home computer system. There’s a hard-drive, keyboard and a display screen, and a small hand-held scanner. The scanner has a transducer (a device that changes sound to electricity, like a two-way microphone) – this sends out sound waves. These sound waves bounce off the organs inside your body, and are picked up again by the transducer. The transducer is linked to a computer that generates real-time images from these reflected sound waves. The images are then displayed on the screen. The pictures are constantly updated so the scan can show movement.

An image showing a person having an ultrasound scan

Details

  • Why might I need an ultrasound? Why might I need an ultrasound?

    You can have an ultrasound on different parts of your body, and for many different reasons. You might need one to check for problems inside your body or to check the health of your baby if you’re pregnant. Ultrasound is also a helpful tool to guide your doctor during procedures. 

    An ultrasound of your heart is called an echocardiogram. There’s also a type of ultrasound called a Doppler ultrasound, which can monitor blood flow in your blood vessels. Any change in the pitch or frequency of the sound waves helps to estimate how fast your blood is flowing. This can help detect blood clots or narrowed blood vessels.

    Your scan may be performed by a technician called a sonographer. Sonographers have had special training in taking ultrasound. A radiologist (a doctor who specialises in using imaging methods) may also take your ultrasound.
  • What happens during an ultrasound? What happens during an ultrasound?

    The scan can take anything from five minutes to about half an hour depending on why you’re having it. You might need to wear a gown. The person performing the scan will explain what’s involved. If you’re having a scan of your pelvis or urinary system, you may need to have a full bladder.

    You’ll usually need to lie on your back on a couch. Your sonographer will put some gel on your skin on the area they’re going to examine. The gel allows the sensor to slide easily over your skin and will help to produce clearer pictures. Your sonographer will hold the sensor firmly against your skin and move it over the surface.

    A transvaginal scan is a scan specifically to check for gynaecological problems, and can look at your womb, fallopian tubes or ovaries. If you’re having this type of scan, you’ll need to lie on your back and raise your knees. Your sonographer will then put a slim-line lubricated sensor into your vagina. You can still have this type of scan when you’re on your period. If you’re not happy to have a transvaginal scan, contact the ultrasound department or your doctor to discuss if there are any alternative options. 

    An ultrasound isn’t painful but you might get some slight discomfort if you’re having a transvaginal scan. Remember to tell your sonographer if you have a latex allergy so they use a suitable cover over the sensor.

    After an ultrasound, your sonographer will wipe the gel from your skin but if any is left, it won’t stain your clothing. You can then usually go home when you feel ready.

  • Getting the results Getting the results

    Your sonographer may talk you through the results during or straight after your scan. Or the results may be sent to your doctor who will go through them with you.

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  • Are there any risks? Are there any risks?

    An ultrasound is completely safe because it doesn’t use any radiation. So, unlike scans such as X-rays and CT scans which do use radiation, there aren’t any of the associated risks. And while you might feel some slight discomfort as the sensor is pressed against you, particularly if the area is tender, there aren’t any side-effects.

  • Other helpful websites Other helpful websites

    Further information

    Sources

    • Ultrasound scanning – non-obstetric. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patientplus, reviewed 23 December 2015
    • General ultrasound. Radiological Society of North America. www.radiologyinfo.org, published 23 June 2014
    • Ultrasound scan. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, reviewed 13 May 2015
    • Transvaginal ultrasound. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists. www.insideradiology.com.au, published 28 February 2015
    • Ultrasound – prostate. Radiological Society of North America. www.radiologyinfo.org, published 12 February 2014
     

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  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Bupa Health Content Team, March 2016.
    Peer reviewed by Dr Daniel Boxer, MRCP (UK), FRCR Consultant Radiologist

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