What is an ultrasound?
Ultrasound is a diagnostic imaging test that uses a handheld probe or wand called a transducer. Ultrasound uses sound waves you can’t hear. When a provider glides the probe over a special gel applied to the testing area, the device captures pictures of soft tissues inside the body.
Ultrasound pictures are also called sonograms.
What is an abdominal ultrasound?
There are several types of ultrasound tests. Each uses a probe designed to image specific areas of the body. An abdominal ultrasound shows organs and other soft tissues (such as blood vessels) inside your abdomen (belly).
How does abdominal ultrasound work?
For an abdominal ultrasound test, a trained medical professional (sonographer) applies a special gel to your belly. The sonographer then moves the probe over the gel.
Sound waves from the probe go through your skin and bounce back from soft tissues (such as organs). Real-time (live) images show up on a computer screen nearby.
What is the difference between an abdominal and pelvic ultrasound?
Healthcare providers consider abdominal ultrasound a type of pelvic ultrasound because it evaluates tissues inside the pelvis (hip bones). Other types of pelvic ultrasound include transvaginal ultrasound and rectal ultrasound.
What body parts does an abdominal ultrasound evaluate?
Your provider orders ultrasound evaluation of specific areas of your abdomen. A right upper quadrant ultrasound examines three organs of the digestive system:
A complete abdominal ultrasound examines those three organs and adds the:
- Abdominal blood vessels (such as the inferior vena cava and the aorta).
Why do healthcare providers perform abdominal ultrasound tests?
Abdominal ultrasound is a common test to check on a developing fetus throughout pregnancy. Providers often call this test a prenatal ultrasound.
Abdominal ultrasound may also help pinpoint the cause of unexplained abdomen (stomach) pain. This test aids in the diagnosis of many routine problems (such as kidney stones) and more serious health concerns (such as blood clots).
What else can abdominal ultrasound detect?
Providers use abdominal ultrasound tests to detect:
- Bladder stones.
- Enlarged spleen.
- Cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation).
- Pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas).
- Cancer, such as stomach cancer or pancreatic cancer.
- Fatty liver disease.
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm (a bulge in the aorta wall in your midsection).
How should I prepare for an abdominal ultrasound?
A member of your care team will give you complete instructions before your exam. Follow their instructions to ensure the most accurate test results.
Your provider may ask you to stop eating or drinking some hours before your test. In some cases, you may need to drink a specific amount of water right before your test. Or you may not need to prepare at all.
Do I need to fast for an abdominal ultrasound?
Possibly. Having a full (or empty) bladder or stomach can sometimes lead to blurry ultrasound pictures. Ask your provider if you should fast before an abdominal ultrasound.
How is an abdominal ultrasound done?
For an abdominal ultrasound scan, you lie on your back on a comfortable table. You will need to pull up or remove your shirt or put on a hospital gown.
During the test, a trained professional:
- Applies gel to your abdomen: Water-soluble gel will cover any areas on your belly that the provider will examine. This gel may feel cold. It will not hurt you or damage your clothes.
- Moves the probe over your skin: The technician gently moves the handheld ultrasound wand over your skin, on top of the gel. The technician moves the probe back and forth until they clearly see the areas in question.
- Gives you instructions: The professional performing this test has received training in how to achieve the clearest images. They may ask you to turn to one side or hold your breath for a few seconds.
- Cleans your skin: The technician wipes off any remaining gel on your skin.
If your provider wants to study your blood vessels, your test may include Doppler ultrasound. Doppler sound waves detect details of how blood flows inside your blood vessels.
How long does an abdominal ultrasound take?
An abdominal ultrasound lasts as long as it takes for the technician to get clear pictures of the intended areas. An ultrasound test usually takes 30 minutes (sometimes less) to complete.
Is abdominal ultrasound painful?
An abdominal ultrasound generally doesn’t hurt. You may feel pressure or slight discomfort if the ultrasound wand touches a tender area. Any discomfort you feel should go away soon after the procedure.
Are ultrasound scans safe?
Yes, the medical community widely agrees that ultrasound is an accurate, safe test when performed by trained professionals. Unlike X-rays, ultrasound does not use radiation (which can cause medical issues at high doses). Ultrasound has no known side effects.
Results and Follow-Up
When should I know the results of an abdominal ultrasound test?
After your test, a radiologist (doctor who specializes in reading medical images) reviews the ultrasound pictures. This medical expert writes a report of the test findings and sends it to your provider. You should hear about your results from your provider within one week.
Providers sometimes use ultrasound to diagnose potentially life-threatening problems in an emergency. If your provider suspects an urgent concern, you will get results right away.
What should I ask my healthcare provider?
If you need an ultrasound test, you may want to ask your provider:
- What type of ultrasound do I need?
- Will I need any other tests?
- What should I do to prepare for my ultrasound?
- When should I expect to get test results?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Providers regularly use abdominal ultrasound to diagnose routine and urgent health matters. Ultrasound doesn’t require radiation, unlike some other imaging tests. Medical providers use abdominal ultrasound to track the health of moms and babies during pregnancy. Certain factors (such as having a full or empty stomach) may make ultrasound pictures blurry or less detailed. Closely follow any instructions your provider gives you regarding test prep to ensure accurate results.
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