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What Is an Ultrasound?

By Liz Thomas
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An ultrasound is a procedure that uses high frequency sound waves, called ultrasonic waves, to produce images of internal organs and the interior of the body. This form of imaging works largely in the same way as sonar. These images are often used in obstetrics but have non-obstetric uses including biopsies and echocardiographs. They can be used to produce either a still or moving image.

Sound waves traveling through different objects is integral to producing an ultrasound image. An ultrasonic sensor called the transducer targets the organ or area of the body being scanned, emitting ultrasonic waves. An echo is produced when the sound waves hit different tissue. The transducer detects the echo and feeds the data into a computer. The computer will then transform the sound into images.

In order for the transducer to easily move over the skin, a gel is applied. This gel also helps to allow the transducer as close to the skin as possible. A slight pressure may be felt if the area is tender due to inflammation. The transducer may also be inserted into the body for an exam. Mild anesthesia is often used for internal exams.

There are no limitations to activity after the ultrasound. The image is then interpreted by a trained professional or radiologist who may then give the patient his or her results. Often, results are passed along to the patient's general practitioner.

Ultrasounds do not have any side effects, since radiation is not used. It is a relatively easy and low cost procedure. These also produce real time images and can be used to help guide invasive procedures. The main concern with ultrasound is that it does not easily distinguish between air and bone and is not good for imaging bones or the lungs.

An ultrasound is commonly used to produce a sonogram or picture of a baby in the uterus. The image may be used to determine the size of the baby, reveal multiple babies, identify some abnormalities and diseases, and is necessary for amniocentesis. Other conditions that can be detected using this procedure include early fetal death, an impending miscarriage, and placenta position. This procedure is used after a woman is 16 weeks pregnant.

Other non-obstetric uses are used to examine internal organs. Tumors, swelling and cysts can all be examined using these high frequency waves. An echocardiograph is a special type of ultrasound used to investigate the heart. This is a diagnostic procedure that looks at structural abnormalities and blood flow though valves.

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Discussion Comments
By nvsr — On Jan 23, 2014

Can you have an ultrasound of the uterus?

By Oceana — On Apr 25, 2012

I had an ultrasound so that my doctor could see my kidneys. I have a condition that causes multiple cysts to form on them, and these cysts get bigger over time, choking out my kidney function. I am also at an increased risk for getting kidney cancer, so my doctor makes me have an ultrasound every three years.

Because they are covered in cysts, my kidneys are tender. It really hurt when the technician was mashing down to get a good image. She apologized and said she had to apply enough pressure to get a clear picture, and I tried to keep my grunts to a minimum.

It seemed like the ultrasound lasted forever! I could see the image on the screen at the time, though, and it was cool to look at my own kidneys. The ultrasound did show that my biggest cyst was 10 cm, but the good news was that I didn't have cancer.

By kylee07drg — On Apr 24, 2012

The word “ultrasound” always makes me think of babies. I think that is because every pregnant woman has one at some point, whether to determine the gender of the baby or to see how it is developing.

My sister had an ultrasound so that she could know whether she was having a boy or a girl. Sometimes, the position of the baby can fool doctors into thinking it's a girl when it isn't. This happened to my sister, and boy, was she surprised when she gave birth to a boy!

She had already decorated the nursery pink, and all her friends had showered her with gifts for a baby girl. After this incident, she decided never to rely on an ultrasound to determine the sex of the baby. She had two more children later on, and she told the doctor she didn't want to know.

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