Using Sound to See: Ultrasound 101

A woman talking to her doctor at a visit.
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If an ultrasound is in the cards for you or a loved one, curiosity about what's going to happen is only natural.

After all, a doctor will be using sound waves to produce a picture from inside your body. Even if it's routine for a trained medical professional, the idea might be a little unsettling for you.

But worry need not be part of your pre-ultrasound routine. Ultrasounds differ in the details such as which part of the body is scanned and whether its performed in a hospital or office-like setting but the basics are the same.

As with any medical procedure, knowing what to expect can bring peace of mind.

What is an Ultrasound?

An ultrasound wave is not much different than everyday sound. The only difference is the sounds used in an ultrasound have a very high frequency. Another way to say this is that they are high pitched, like a whistle or tennis shoes squeaking on a basketball court.

The human ear cannot hear these sounds, but they are much better at reflecting sound because the distance between sound waves is so tiny. Bats also use this type of sound wave to echolocate, which operates on the same principle as an ultrasound device.

Ultrasounds tend to be painless and are almost always non-invasive, which means no needles or injections. They're like an X-ray in that way.

But unlike an X-ray they do not use radiation. Instead, an ultrasound bounces high-pitched sound waves off of your body, and creates a picture based on the echoes.

An ultrasound machine uses these echoes to calculate the density of our tissues. Sound waves that pass-through a less-dense part of the body produce few echoes and show up as black on a screen. Likewise, waves that bounce off denser body parts show up as a lighter image

Ultrasounds have been used for more than 50 years without evidence of any negative side effects. They are most well-known for giving expectant mothers a glimpse of their unborn children, but are used across medicine.

What to Expect

Though there are some special cases, most ultrasounds will take a predictable course. There is generally little preparation, though ultrasounds of the abdominal area may require some fasting. You should also wear comfortable clothing and remove your jewelry.

Here's how the procedure is likely to happen:

  1. You'll be asked to lie down on a bed, and you may be asked to wear a gown.
  2. A water-based gel will be placed on your skin. This will help conduct sound waves to ensure there's a connection between the ultrasound machine and your body.
  3. A trained sonographer will use a hand-held transducer, a machine that emits and receives sound waves, to scan your body.
  4. Images will display on a monitor, which can be recorded.

The entire procedure should be finished within 30 minutes to an hour.

Types of Ultrasound Procedures

Ultrasounds are best known for providing a glimpse into a developing baby, but there are many other uses for ultrasounds. At AdventHealth, these include:

  • Doppler ultrasound: Used to see inside the body and evaluate blood flow, including to diagnose problems of the vein and arteries.
  • Vascular ultrasound: Used to see the vascular, or circulatory, system and evaluate how well it's working, including detection of blood clots.
  • Echocardiogram: Used to see the heart and how well it is pumping blood.
  • Abdominal ultrasound: Used to detect any problems with organs of the abdomen, such as gallstones and tumors.
  • Interventional ultrasound: Used to help a surgeon during a minimally invasive operation or tissue test.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound: Used to examine the inside of a body or organ using a transducer inside a small, flexible tube.

Ultrasounds can also be used to see the breast, kidneys, thyroid, testicles, prostate or joints and muscles.

We want patients who are expecting an ultrasound to look forward to a stress-free visit. An untroubled mind leads to a healthy body and an invigorated spirit.

AdventHealth offers ultrasounds at a variety of locations that are part of our system-wide network of care. For more information, visit our website.

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