Abdominal Ultrasounds: Everything You Need to Know
Like many medical terms, the phrase “abdominal ultrasound” can cause some anxiety. Right? So, if you’re not sure what an ultrasound entails, you’re in the right place. We’re here to take the worry (or maybe just the uncertainty) out of your next ultrasound. Without going into extreme depth, an ultrasound is a simple imaging modality that is used to take detailed images of the inside of your body, in this case the abdomen, to confirm if there has been any change to your internal organs or tissues caused by illness or disease. Ultrasounds are 100% safe and are covered by most insurance companies (Whew!). So, let’s explore a little more about abdominal ultrasounds and learn what to expect if you’re referred for an ultrasound.
Ultrasound? What’s That?
The first question most patients have is usually a simple one – what in the world is an abdominal ultrasound? An abdominal ultrasound is a test that results in images of the upper abdominal viscera, or solid organs. These images are needed to record by way of real time imaging the organs in the abdomen like the kidneys, gallbladder, pancreas, or liver. Sometimes the blood vessels that are associated or connected to these organs can also be examined with an ultrasound like the aorta for example.
Because the images are taken in real time, kind of like watching live TV, sonologists and sonographers are able to scan in multiple planes to scan through each organ from different perspectives. The medical community has vastly improved with the addition of diagnostic ultrasounds. Ultrasounds are simple, easy non-invasive tests.
Why Do I Need an Ultrasound?
The most common use of an abdominal ultrasound is to check the morphology (which is the form and structure of main internal solid organs) in your abdominal area. The organs usually assessed are the kidneys, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, spleen, and various surrounding blood vessels. Ultrasounds produce images of these organs to ensure that no abnormalities exist.
Your doctor may also recommend an abdominal ultrasound if you are experiencing any abdominal pain or distention in an attempt to diagnose the cause of your pain. For instance, blood tests may show that your liver is not functioning properly, so an abdominal ultrasound will be performed to assess the size, shape and appearance of that particular organ. The liver could be examined for the cause of jaundice, to assess the liver for fatty infiltration and / or a mass or lesion.
If your physician performs a physical examination and discovers that one of your abdominal organs is enlarged, an exploratory ultrasound will be ordered. Enlarged organs indicate an abnormality .
Abdominal ultrasounds can also be used to detect the presence of gallstones, kidney stones, or blocked bile ducts.
Additionally, if you have (or there is a possibility of having) an aneurysm of the aorta, ultrasounds are used to find, measure, and monitor the aneurysm. These aneurysms may appear as a large, pulsing bump in the abdomen but many times this dilatation of the aorta can go unnoticed and is only seen when having an abdominal ultrasound usually for some other reason.
Abdominal ultrasounds are also useful tools in the field of oncology. If you have a particular type of cancer, an abdominal ultrasound can be used to check for metastasis. Tumors, cysts, and fluid collections can be all elements found during abdominal ultrasounds.
Let’s Get Prepped!
Want to have all the information you possibly can before arriving at your ultrasound appointment? Of course you do! Your doctor should be willing (and able) to explain the entire procedure to you and give you the opportunity to ask any questions you may have. Depending on the organ that your physician intends to examine, you may have to prepare for the procedure in a specific way.
The majority of the time, fasting is necessary for six to eight hours before any abdominal ultrasound procedure. Air or gas can significantly block the sound waves so fasting reduces obstructions in the form of bowel gas that could interfere with the imaging of the abdominal organs. Sometimes, your doctor will ask you to eat a fat-free meal the night before your test (before you begin your fast). It’s important to inform your doctor of any concerns you have.
It’s also important to note that even if you can’t eat anything, staying hydrated and continuing to take any medications you need is essential, unless your doctor has instructed you otherwise.
Besides that, we recommend that you feel as comfortable as you like the day of the exam. It never hurts to wear loose-fitting clothing. Although some doctor’s offices may ask you to wear a gown, most don’t require it.
Again, your GP should make any specific requests as to the preparation for your ultrasound pretty clear before the appointment. If you feel unsure about the procedure, call your doctor’s office to get clarification on how you can be ultimately prepared for your appointment or you can also call the ultrasound clinic where the ultrasound is being performed for more information.
So…What Exactly is Going to Happen?
We understand that it’s always nice to know what to expect when you arrive for your ultrasound. So, let’s play it out.
You’ll walk into the examination room and likely see the ultrasound machine – it looks like a super complicated computer. A small wand-like tool (almost like a microphone) called the transducer will be attached to it by a cord. The machine will send sound waves through the face of the transducer into your body. The transducer will receive the echoes (which bounce back from the organs by way of the computer generated images) that reflect from the organ being assessed. These images will be shown on the monitor in real time. It’s actually pretty amazing to see. Still images and video clips are taken and are stored for the radiologist to evaluate.
Once you get into this room, you may be asked to change into a hospital gown. You will lie down on the table on your back with your upper abdomen exposed.
The sonographer will come in and explain the procedure if you aren’t already familiar with it. A special lubricating jelly will be spread on the area that will be examined – your abdomen. This jelly eliminates any friction that may occur ensuring that the sound waves are emitted without disruption. The transducer will be moved over your abdomen sometimes with firm pressure sending the sound waves through your body. Interestingly enough, these waves are emitted at far too high a frequency for humans to hear and the sound waves cannot be felt. Once the echoes are reflected back into the ultrasound machine, the images will begin to appear on the computer monitor. If additional images are needed, the sonographer may ask you to shift around to get the best angle for the ultrasound, sometimes lying on your left side or your right side or even standing to obtain the necessary images.
Does it hurt? Not at all. The only thing you may experience will be slight discomfort from lying still in a certain position for an extended period of time. You will be asked to hold your breath for short periods of time during the ultrasound also. Besides that, the gel may feel slightly cold and wet. Not exactly the best feeling, but it’s really not that bad at all.
To obtain crystal clear images for accurate ultrasound results, your procedure should only take at most 30 minutes. After that, the gel will be cleaned off of your belly, and you are free to go about your day! It’s as simple (and noninvasive) as that!
Is It a Risky Business? : The Benefits of Abdominal Ultrasounds
Do you want the good news or the great news?
The great news is that there aren’t any risks involved with abdominal ultrasounds (another big Whew)! Unlike many other medical tests, ultrasounds do not employ radiation, so there is absolutely no danger involved in this procedure.
Now…onto the good news! Ultrasounds are painless – but they may be a tad uncomfortable if you are experiencing any pain or sensitivity in your abdomen. If you ever do feel pain, let the sonographer know right away.
Ultrasounds are noninvasive, which means the process is conducted on the surface of the abdomen without the involvement of any messy or nerve-wracking tools. Another good point to raise is that it is extremely easy to schedule an appointment for an abdominal ultrasound.
Abdominal ultrasounds are also incredibly accurate. In a matter of seconds, a clear image is displayed on the screen – how futuristic is that? In most cases, the sonographer or sonologist can view the image on the screen and have a pretty good idea of what’s happening in there. Sometimes they will tell you right then and there and other times you have to wait to have your GP explain it especially if you have to have further testing to clarify findings.
Surprisingly, ultrasounds are also fairly low in cost when compared with other medical procedures. So it won’t cost you an arm or a leg to find out where your pain or discomfort is originating from.
Lastly, abdominal ultrasounds provide a dynamic assessment – meaning that you have the opportunity to interact with the sonographer and learn about things while you go. It’s not an impersonal sort of test where you have to be absolutely still and quiet. Feel free to ask any questions that arise during the test, and the sonographer will be happy to answer them in every way possible.
Ultrasound? Check! Now What?
You’ve done it! Now, the hard part is over! Often you will have a pretty good idea when you leave the ultrasound room what is going on but unfortunately, sometimes you may have to wait to receive results from your GP.
After you have had an ultrasound, the images will be interpreted and reported by a consultant radiologist. A radiologist is a doctor that has been specially trained to interpret radiology examinations – thus, your ultrasound. After they interpret the images, they will send a signed report to your physician. Sometimes, if the radiologist is in-house, there is a chance they may discuss the results with you immediately after you have the ultrasound performed.
The radiologists may be asked to review the information more than once (or more than one radiologist may be consulted). The radiologists may request additional images of your abdomen. If the radiologist finds an abnormality in your ultrasound, additional imaging in a different modality, or a further specialized type of ultrasound may be needed, depending upon the abnormality seen.
Your doctor should schedule a follow-up appointment with you to discuss the results of your abdominal ultrasound if the radiologist is not available at the time of the procedure. If the ultrasound results show any cause for concern, your doctor will discuss the necessary steps and treatment plans that are required with you.
The good news is that there are little to no restrictions after your ultrasound. Typically, you are free to return to your normal eating habits, and resume your everyday normal activities. Your doctor should inform you if there is anything specific you need to do or get done following your ultrasound.
In the End…Ultrasounds are Ultra-sweet!
Overall, there is nothing to be worried about when it comes to having an abdominal ultrasound. Remember, feel free to ask your sonographer any questions you may have because they are there to help you. Abdominal ultrasounds are truly an easy, noninvasive, effective way to get answers…and fast! So, now that you have ample information about abdominal ultrasounds, there’s no need to be nervous – simply lay back, relax, and let the professionals get a good look at what’s going on…inside your tummy!
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All of the content and articles on our blog and website are intended for informational purposes only. Please do not consider any of the information provided here as a substitute for medical advice. At all times seek medical advice directly with your own doctor and medical team.