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An ultrasound scan can be used to monitor an unborn baby, diagnose a condition, or guide a surgeon during certain procedures.
A small device called an ultrasound probe is used, which gives off high-frequency sound waves.
You can’t hear these sound waves, but when they bounce off different parts of the body, they create “echoes” that are picked up by the probe and turned into a moving image. This image is displayed on a monitor while the scan is carried out.
Before having some types of ultrasound scan, you may be asked to follow certain instructions to help improve the quality of the images produced.
For example, you may be advised to:
Most ultrasound scans last between 15 and 45 minutes. They usually take place in a hospital radiology department and are performed either by a radiologist or a sonographer.
They can also be carried out in community locations such as GP practices, and may be performed by other healthcare professionals, such as midwives or physiotherapists who have been specially trained in ultrasound.
There are different kinds of ultrasound scans, depending on which part of the body is being scanned and why.
The 3 main types are:
1. external ultrasound scan – the probe is moved over the skin
2. internal ultrasound scan – the probe is inserted into the body
3. endoscopic ultrasound scan – the probe is attached to a long, thin, flexible tube (an endoscope) and passed further into the body
These techniques are described below.
An external ultrasound scan is most often used to examine your heart or an unborn baby in your womb.
It can also be used to examine the liver, kidneys and other organs in the tummy and pelvis, as well as other organs or tissues that can be assessed through the skin, such as muscles and joints.
A small handheld probe is placed on your skin and moved over the part of the body being examined.
A lubricating gel is put on your skin to allow the probe to move smoothly. This also ensures there’s continuous contact between the probe and the skin.
You shouldn’t feel anything other than the sensor and gel on your skin (which is often cold).
If you’re having a scan of your womb or pelvic area, you may have a full bladder that causes you a little discomfort.
There will be a toilet nearby to empty your bladder once the scan is complete.
An internal examination allows a doctor to look more closely inside the body at organs such as the prostate gland, ovaries or womb.
A “transvaginal” ultrasound means “through the vagina”. During the procedure, you’ll be asked to either lie on your back, or on your side with your knees drawn up towards your chest.
A small ultrasound probe with a sterile cover, not much wider than a finger, is then gently passed into the vagina or rectum and images are transmitted to a monitor.
Internal examinations may cause some discomfort, but don’t usually cause any pain and shouldn’t take very long.
During an endoscopic ultrasound scan, an endoscope is inserted into your body, usually through your mouth, to examine areas such as your stomach or gullet (oesophagus).
You’ll usually be asked to lie on your side as the endoscope is carefully pushed down towards your stomach.
The endoscope has a light and an ultrasound device on the end. Once it’s been inserted into the body, sound waves are used to create images in the same way as an external ultrasound.
You’ll usually be given a sedative to keep you calm and local anaesthetic spray to numb your throat, as an endoscopic ultrasound scan can be uncomfortable and may make you feel sick.
You may also be given a mouth guard to keep your mouth open and protect your teeth, in case you bite the endoscope.
Ultrasound is used for many reasons, including to:
There are 3 main types of ultrasound offered in pregnancy.
Sometimes ultrasounds are performed more often during pregnancy. This might happen if:
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