When your doctor wants to diagnose the cause of unexplained pain, swelling or infection, she may order a diagnostic ultrasound. You may be familiar with ultrasounds if you’ve been pregnant and your obstetrician used it to observe your developing baby. Ultrasounds are safe, non-invasive and don’t use any ionizing radiation. They are useful for looking at internal organs and to help guide needle biopsies.

What happens during an ultrasound?

An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images. During your ultrasound, you will lie on a table and a technologist will apply an ultrasound gel on your skin in the area of interest. Then the technologist will move a handheld transducer (it’s about the size of a bar of soap) over the area. The transducer sends sound waves into your body and receives echoing sound waves back. The sound waves are transmitted to a screen where they show the radiologist real-time images of the structure and movement of organs or blood flowing.

There is little preparation required for an ultrasound, although in the case of a gallbladder ultrasound, your doctor may ask you not to eat or drink for several hours beforehand. The procedure lasts about 30 minutes to an hour.

Since ultrasounds depend on bouncing sound waves, they are typically not very effective for air-filled or solid structures, such as the lungs or bone.

There are no known harms of an ultrasound, so they are safe for use with developing fetuses and infants.

Special types of ultrasound

Doppler. A Doppler ultrasound measures the direction and speed of blood flow and helps diagnose blockages or narrowing of blood vessels.

Echocardiagram. This is an ultrasound of the heart. We use it to diagnose heart conditions or assess damage after a heart attack.

Trans-ultrasound. Sometimes, instead of doing an external ultrasound, we’ll use a transducer attached to a probe and insert it into an opening in your body. The most common of these procedures are:

  • Trans-esophageal ultrasound
  • Trans-rectal ultrasound
  • Trans-vaginal ultrasound

After your procedure, Radiology Associates of Richmond will interpret your test results and then send your physician a report so he or she can discuss your results and next steps with you.