Ultrasound imaging of the abdomen uses sound waves to produce pictures of the structures within the upper abdomen. It is used to help diagnose pain or distention (enlargement) and evaluate the kidneys, liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas, spleen, and abdominal aorta. Ultrasound is safe, non-invasive, and does not use ionizing radiation.
This procedure requires little to no special preparation. Your doctor will instruct you on how to prepare, including whether you should refrain from eating or drinking beforehand. Leave jewelry at home and wear loose, comfortable clothing. You may be asked to wear a gown.
What is Ultrasound Imaging of the Abdomen?
Ultrasound imaging is a noninvasive medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions. It is safe and painless. It produces pictures of the inside of the body using sound waves. Ultrasound imaging is also called sonography. It uses a small probe called a transducer and gel placed directly on the skin. High-frequency sound waves travel from the probe through the gel into the body. The probe collects the sounds that bounce back. A computer uses those sound waves to create an image. Ultrasound exams do not use radiation (x-rays). Because ultrasound captures images in real-time, it can show the structure and movement of the body's internal organs. The images can also show blood flowing through blood vessels.
An abdominal ultrasound produces a picture of the organs and other structures in the upper abdomen.
A Doppler ultrasound study may be part of an abdominal ultrasound examination.
Doppler ultrasound is a special ultrasound technique that evaluates the movement of materials in the body. It allows the doctor to see and evaluate blood flow through arteries and veins in the body.
What are some common uses of the procedure?
Abdominal ultrasound imaging is performed to evaluate the:
- bile ducts
- abdominal aorta and other blood vessels of the abdomen
Ultrasound is used to help diagnose a variety of conditions, such as:
- abdominal pain or distention (enlargement)
- abnormal liver function
- enlarged abdominal organ
- kidney stones
- an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)
Additionally, ultrasound may be used to provide guidance for biopsies.
Doppler ultrasound helps the doctor 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
How should I prepare?
Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing. You may need to remove all clothing and jewelry in the area to be examined.
You may need to change into a gown for the procedure.
Preparations depend on the type of ultrasound you are having.
For a study of the liver, gallbladder, spleen, and pancreas, you may be asked to eat a fat-free meal on the evening before the test and then to avoid eating for eight to 12 hours before the test.
For ultrasound of the kidneys, you may be asked to drink four to six glasses of liquid about an hour before the test to fill your bladder. You may be asked to avoid eating for eight to 12 hours before the test to avoid gas buildup in the intestines.
For ultrasound of the aorta, you may need to avoid eating for eight to 12 hours before the test.
How does the procedure work?
Ultrasound imaging uses the same principles as the sonar that bats, ships, and fishermen use. When a sound wave strikes an object, it bounces back or echoes. By measuring these echo waves, it is possible to determine how far away the object is as well as its size, shape, and consistency. This includes whether the object is solid or filled with fluid.
Doctors use ultrasound to detect changes in the appearance of organs, tissues, and vessels and to detect abnormal masses, such as tumors.
In an ultrasound exam, a transducer both sends the sound waves and records the echoing (returning) waves. When the transducer is pressed against the skin, it sends small pulses of inaudible, high-frequency sound waves into the body. As the sound waves bounce off internal organs, fluids and tissues, the sensitive receiver in the transducer records tiny changes in the sound's pitch and direction. A computer instantly measures these signature waves and displays them as real-time pictures on a monitor. The technologist typically captures one or more frames of the moving pictures as still images. They may also save short video loops of the images.
Doppler ultrasound, a special ultrasound technique, measures the direction and speed of blood cells as they move through vessels. The movement of blood cells causes a change in pitch of the reflected sound waves (called the Doppler effect). A computer collects and processes the sounds and creates graphs or color pictures that represent the flow of blood through the blood vessels.
How is the procedure performed?
For most ultrasound exams, you will lie face-up on an exam table that can be tilted or moved. Patients may turn to either side to improve the quality of the images.
The radiologist (a doctor specifically trained to supervise and interpret radiology exams) or sonographer will position you on the exam table. They will apply a water-based gel to the area of the body under examination. The gel will help the transducer make secure contact with the body. It also eliminates air pockets between the transducer and the skin that can block the sound waves from passing into your body. The sonographer places the transducer on the body and moves it back and forth over the area of interest until it captures the desired images.
There is usually no discomfort from pressure as they press the transducer against the area being examined. However, if the area is tender, you may feel pressure or minor pain from the transducer.
Doctors perform Doppler sonography with the same transducer.
Once the imaging is complete, the technologist will wipe off the clear ultrasound gel from your skin. Any portions that remain will dry quickly. The ultrasound gel does not usually stain or discolor clothing.
What will I experience during and after the procedure?
Most ultrasound exams are painless, fast, and easily tolerated.
Abdominal ultrasound is usually completed within 30 minutes.
If the doctor performs a Doppler ultrasound exam, you may hear pulse-like sounds that change in pitch as they monitor and measure the blood flow.
When the exam is complete, the technologist may ask you to dress and wait while they review the ultrasound images.
After an ultrasound exam, you should be able to resume your normal activities immediately.