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Ultrasound Scan

An ultrasound scan, sometimes called a sonogram, is a procedure that uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of part of the inside of the body.

An ultrasound scan can be used to monitor an unborn baby, diagnose a condition, or guide a surgeon during certain procedures.

How Ultrasound Scans Work

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.

Preparing for an Ultrasound Scan

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:

  • drink water and not go to the toilet until after the scan– this may be needed before a scan of your unborn baby or your pelvic area
  • avoid eating or drinking for several hours before the scan– this may be needed before a scan of your digestive system, including the liver and gallbladder
  • Depending on the area of your body being examined, the hospital may ask you to remove some clothing and wear a hospital gown
  • If you need a sedative to help you relax, this will be given through a small tube into the back of your hand or into your arm
  • In some cases, you may also be given an injection of a harmless substance called a contrast agent before the scan, as this can make the images clearer

What Happens During an Ultrasound Scan

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.

External Ultrasound Scan

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.

Internal or Transvaginal Ultrasound Scan

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.

Endoscopic Ultrasound Scan

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.

Why as an Ultrasound Scan Done?

Ultrasound is used for many reasons, including to:

  • View the uterus and ovaries during pregnancy and monitor the developing baby’s health
  • Diagnose gallbladder disease
  • Evaluate blood flow
  • Guide a needle for biopsy or tumor treatment
  • Examine a breast lump
  • Check your thyroid gland
  • Detect genital and prostate problems
  • Assess joint inflammation (synovitis)
  • Evaluate metabolic bone disease

What are the Different Types of Ultrasounds Offered in Pregnancy?

There are 3 main types of ultrasound offered in pregnancy.

dating scan

can be used to confirm your due date if you are unsure of your last menstrual period or your date of conception. It is usually offered to pregnant women from 10 weeks to 13 weeks’ gestation, but can be carried out any time from 6 weeks.

nuchal translucency scan

might be offered to help you work out the risk of your baby having a chromosomal abnormality. It might be done as part of a dating scan, or it can be done separately. You might be advised to have a blood test with it.

morphology or anomaly scan

is a detailed ultrasound scan that looks at your baby’s body and observes the position of the placenta, the umbilical cord, the amniotic fluid around your baby, and your uterus and cervix. It is usually done at 18 to 20 weeks’ gestation.

Sometimes ultrasounds are performed more often during pregnancy. This might happen if:

  • you are having twins or triplets
  • you have a complication in your pregnancy

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