Ultrasound - What to Expect

June 18, 2012
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This podcast explains what to expect during an ultrasound scan.


You're listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the world's leading professional organization for doctors that care for people with cancer.

Today we’ll talk about what to expect when you’re scheduled to have an ultrasound.

Let’s start by talking about what an ultrasound is, and then we’ll cover how to prepare for this type of test and what questions you may want to ask before having an ultrasound.

An ultrasound is an imaging test. This means that doctors use ultrasound images to help them see inside a person’s body. Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to create the images. The sound waves produce echoes when they bounce off your organs and tissues. A tumor produces a different type of echo than normal tissue. When these echoes are transferred to a computer and changed into pictures, the doctor can locate a tumor inside the body.

An ultrasound is usually performed in your doctor’s office or at a hospital. A trained technologist -- called a sonographer -- usually performs the test. Then, a radiologist reads and interprets the results. A radiologist is a medical doctor who uses images to diagnose disease.

When you schedule your ultrasound, you’ll receive detailed instructions about how to prepare for the exam. The specific preparation varies depending on the part of the body being examined. For example, you may need to eat a fat-free meal the night before if the ultrasound is for certain parts of the abdomen. Or, you may have to stop eating for up to 12 hours before the procedure. Some people are instructed to drink a full quart of water an hour before the exam so the bladder is full. This way, the bladder pushes other organs closer to the walls of the abdomen for a clearer picture. Sometimes, there is no special preparation needed, but don’t forget to wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes to the exam.

When you arrive for your ultrasound, you may be asked to change into a hospital gown and remove all items that could interfere with the test, including jewelry. You’ll also be asked to sign a consent form stating that you understand the benefits and risks of ultrasound and that you agree to have the test.  Be sure to talk with your doctor about any concerns you may have.

During the exam, you will lie on an ultrasound table, most likely on your back or side, but your body position depends on which body part is being scanned. For instance, if you’re having a kidney ultrasound, you may need to lie on your stomach. Next to the table will be the scanner, which includes a computer, a display screen, and a transducer. The transducer is the device that the sonographer moves over the area being studied. It’s about as big as a bar of soap and is attached to the scanner by a cord. The sonographer will apply a gel on your skin to help the transducer move smoothly and create better images. The gel may feel cool, but it’s often warmed before it’s applied. Next, the sonographer will press the transducer firmly against the gel and move it back and forth across that area of your body.

As the transducer moves over your skin, images of your organs and blood vessels will appear on the monitor. The sonographer will record certain images, and the radiologist may enter the room to look at them on the screen.

The test will last twenty to sixty minutes. You may need to change position once or twice, hold your breath, or remain still for short periods of time. An ultrasound test causes no pain, but you may feel some discomfort if you have to stay still, especially if your bladder is full.

After the test is over, the sonographer will wipe the gel from your skin, and you can get dressed and resume your normal activities, including driving.

When your doctor recommends an ultrasound, you may want to ask the following questions:

Question one: Why am I having an ultrasound?

Question two: What will happen during the test, and how long will the procedure take?

Question three: Who performs the test?

Question four: When will I get the results, and who will explain them to me?

And, question five: What happens next if the scan indicates a tumor?

Be sure to ask your doctor any other questions you may have about preparing for and having an ultrasound. Knowing what to expect before the procedure may help you feel more comfortable.

For more information on this topic, contact your doctor or visit www.cancer.net.

Cancer.Net is supported by the Conquer Cancer Foundation, which is working to create a world free from the fear of cancer by funding breakthrough research, sharing knowledge with physicians and patients worldwide, and supporting initiatives to ensure that all people have access to high-quality cancer care. Thank you for listening to this Cancer.Net Podcast.