Ultrasound - Diagnosis

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Diagnostic uses


Ultrasound is routinely used for assessing the progression of pregnancy. Pelvic ultrasounds can be obtained trans-abdominally where the probe is placed on the abdominal wall, or trans-vaginally, where the probe is placed in the vagina. For example ultrasound in obstetrics is used to diagnose growths or tumors of the ovary, uterus, Fallopian tubes.



Echocardiography (echo=sound + cardio=heart + graphy=study) evaluates the heart, the heart's valve function, and blood flow through them. It also evaluates the heart wall motion and the amount of blood the heart pumps with each stroke.

Echocardiography can be performed in two ways:

  • trans-thoracic: the probe is place on chest wall to obtain images, and
  • trans-esophageal: where the probe is placed through the mouth into the esophagus.

Anatomically, the esophagus sits near the heart and allows clearer images. However, this approach is a little more invasive.

Different groups of illnesses can be assessed by echocardiography:

  • Valves in the heart keep blood flowing in one direction when the heart pumps. For example, when the heart beats, blood is pumped from the left ventricle through the aortic valve into the aorta and the rest of the body. The aortic valve prevents blood from back-flowing into the heart as it fills for the next beat. Echocardiography can determine if the valve is narrow or leaking (regurgitating, insufficient). By following how the patient fares clinically, repeated echocardiograms can help determine whether valve replacement or repair is warranted. The same principles apply to the mitral valve which keeps blood flowing from the left atrium to the left ventricle.
  • The heart muscle pumps blood to the body. If the heart weakens, the amount of blood it pumps with each beat can decrease, leading to congestive heart failure. The echocardiogram can measure the efficiency of the heart beat and how much blood it pumps; which assists in determining whether medications are needed. It also is used to monitor how well medications are working.
  • Echocardiography can visualize the heart chambers to detect blood clots in conditions such as atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart rhythm). In other situations, the test can help diagnoseendocarditis (an infection of the heart valves) by visualizing "vegetations" (an infected mass) on the valves themselves.
  • Echocardiography also can detect abnormal fluid collections (pericardial effusions) in the pericardium.
  • Echocardiograms are used to diagnose and monitor pulmonary artery hypertension.

Blood vessels

Ultrasound can detect blood clots in veins (superficial or deep venous thrombosis) or artery blockage (stenosis) and dilatation (aneurysms). Some examples of ultrasound testing include:

  • Carotid ultrasound is performed in patients with transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) or strokes to determine whether the major arteries in the neck are blocked causing the decreased blood supply to the brain.
  • The aorta is the large blood vessel leaving the heart that supplies blood to the rest of the body. The walls of the aorta are under significant pressure from the force of the heartbeat and over time, may weaken and widen. This is called an aneurysm, and it can be detected in the abdomen by ultrasound (abdominal aortic aneurysm). For those patients with small aneurysm, observation may be recommended and the aneurysm size followed over time by repeated tests.
  • Veins can also be evaluated by ultrasound and it is a common test to assess whether swelling in a leg is due to a blood clot, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or another cause.

Abdominal structures

Aside from its use in obstetrics, ultrasound can evaluate most of the solid structures in the abdominal cavity. This includes the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, kidneys, bladder, prostate, testicles, uterus, and ovaries.

  • Ultrasound is the preferred to test to screen for gallstones or an infected gallbladder. The ultrasound can reveal the stones as well as signs of infection, including thickening of the gallbladder wall and fluid surrounding the gallbladder. The ultrasound may find blockage in the bile ducts.
  • For those patients where the radiation of a CT scan (computerized tomography) is a potential risk (pregnant patients or children), ultrasound may be used to look for diseases like appendicitis or kidney stones.
  • Ultrasound is the test of choice to diagnose testicular torsion.
  • Pelvic ultrasound is used in gynecology to help assess non-pregnancy related issues like lower abdominal pain, ovarian cysts, uterine fibroids, uterine growths, and endometriosis.

The neck

The thyroid gland can be imaged using ultrasound looking for nodules, growths, or tumors.

Knee joint

Ultrasound can be used to detect bulging of fluid from a swollen knee joint into the back of the knee, called a Baker's cyst.

Return to Ultrasound

See what others are saying

Comment from: JodyS, 75 or over Female (Patient) Published: May 19

My therapist is doing ultrasound for my Achilles tendinitis to reduce inflammation, along with special stretching exercise. I was surprised that ultrasound would be used for this. My sessions are continuing and I am hopeful that this will end my continuing heel pain.

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Comment from: Jen, 25-34 Female Published: November 06

I lived on Maui and I strongly believe I had bird flu. It started after the island had an earthquake. In the next few days I became sick. For two days I was vomiting and had a fever. The throwing up stopped because I had nothing to throw up anymore. After that I had body aches, chills, and jaw clenching, I was literally chewing on a wet wash cloth. I was coughing on and on and could not sleep lying down until I was so exhausted I would pass out. I was very weak, I could not eat solid foods; I tried, I just couldn't. I literally survived on water and those emergency mix packets. I was sick for over a week and went to a walk-in clinic, no insurance, so they told me take NyQuil and I should be getting better. I tried to tell them I was dying, I'd never felt like this in my life. They just ignored me. I was ready to be admitted to a hospital just to get IV fluids, something was just wrong! Another week went by and I was not improving, I was getting worse. When I would breathe I could hear and feel my lungs popping and I thought pneumonia! I went back to the clinic and they saw I was not improving and listened to my lungs and oxygen saturation was way low! They gave me an inhaler and said to take Mucinex! I coughed up fluid and what not for at least another 2 weeks. I was so weak, was able to eat soup, but not much else. I had lost 20 pounds in the month and a half I was sick. It was awful, and the whole time no one believed I was that sick! I thought I was going to die!

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