What is an Ultrasound Scan? Uses, Types, Procedure, and Risks

Contributed by Harleen Kaur


An ultrasound scan, also known as sonography, is the second most popular image diagnostic test after an X-ray. 

An ultrasonic scan is a type of medical examination that records real-time images of the inner structures of your body using high-frequency sound waves and not radiation or X-rays. 

Without making any incisions, ultrasound allows medical professionals to see details of soft tissues inside your body.

Although a majority of people usually associate ultrasound with pregnancy-related tests, medical professionals use it in a wide range of situations to analyse different internal body organs.

Why does an ultrasound need to be performed? 

Ultrasound is used for a variety of purposes such as

  • During pregnancy, to the health of the unborn child.
  • Diagnose gallbladder disease
  • Measure the blood flow
  • Biopsy procedures and tumour treatment
  • Examine a breast lump
  • Check thyroid function
  • Diagnose genitalia and prostate issues
  • Diagnosis of joint inflammation (synovitis)
  • Evaluate metabolic bone disease

How is an ultrasound performed?

The way an ultrasound scan is conducted depends on the medical issue and the body part that needs to be scanned. The scan takes place on a comfortable table, wherein you’ll be required to either lay flat on your back or your side. 

A transducer, often known as a probe, is a device that medical professionals use to transmit sound waves across or inside a region of your body during an ultrasound. Your skin will have a thin layer of gel applied by the healthcare professional to minimise the air between the transducer and the skin so that the ultrasound waves pass through easily into your body.

The device sends high-frequency sound waves into the tissues of your body by transforming electrical current into sound waves. These sound waves are barely audible.

The ultrasound is an outpatient procedure that does not require hospitalisation and usually takes between 30 minutes to 1 hour. 

How to prepare yourself for an ultrasound?

A special lubricating gel will be applied to your skin by a sonographer, a technician who performs ultrasounds. They rub the ultrasound transducer on your skin while creating friction. A microphone attached to the transducer is connected to a computer screen that is used to describe the transducer’s appearance as it moves on the body part. The gel helps in a smoother transmission of sound waves into the body part.

Additionally, your doctor might advise you to fast for a specified period of time, usually 8-12 hours before some scans, like a liver, lungs, pancreas, gallbladder, stomach or urinary bladder. Because undigested food in the stomach and urine in the bladder can disrupt the sound waves and hinder the technician’s ability to get a clear image.

Ask your physician if you should consume your regular medications before an ultrasound. 

A normal ultrasound requires drinking as much water as you can in order to get clearer images of internal body parts, however, if you are pregnant, the doctor suggests coming for an ultrasound after eating or drinking adequately to check for the foetus’s growth and health by observing the movement of an unborn baby.

Some commonly recommended ultrasound tests:

  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • Breast ultrasound
  • General ultrasound
  • Prostate ultrasound
  • Thyroid ultrasound

Risks of an ultrasound

Since ultrasound involves the use of low-power sound waves, it is considered safe with no known risks as such.

Though external and internal ultrasound scans are generally painless and safe but because the probe/ transducer is pressed over the skin, some discomfort may be felt. 

Additionally, internal organs in the human body may be undetectable by ultrasound. Your doctor could request additional imaging tests, like X-rays or CT or MRI scans, to examine these areas.

Final thoughts 

Whenever you have come across the term ultrasound you must have felt scared and wished you never had to get it done. But there is absolutely no reason you should feel scared about it. With the right preparation and guidance from your lab, you can get your ultrasound done smoothly without any stress.

Ultrasound is one of the best technologies available to help your doctor diagnose a disease effectively. An ultrasound can be of huge help to your doctor to identify the cause of a health issue and help in diagnosing accurately and prescribing the best treatment plan for you.

After the test is conducted, an expert  (radiologist) evaluates imaging test images and generates a report.

One of the great advantages of ultrasound is that you can return to normal routine activities just after an ultrasound.

Furthermore, you should also undergo preventive health checkups. These health checkups give a complete report about your health, allowing you to take necessary precautionary measures to improve your well-being and keep various ailments at bay.

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