What to expect when you go for an ultrasound

Most people associate ultrasound scans with pregnancy, but there are many other reasons why you may have one.

For example, you can have an NHS or private ultrasound to:

  • Diagnose some kinds of cancers
  • Identify gallbladder problems and disease
  • Check for problems with ovaries (i.e. polycystic ovarian syndrome) or other parts of the reproductive system
  • Evaluate flow in blood vessels
  • Guide a needle for a biopsy procedure
  • Check out a breast lump or thyroid gland
  • Check for prostate and genital abnormalities
  • Assess abdominal pain

If ever a doctor needs to examine the body’s internal organs, an ultrasound scan can often be the best tool at their disposal.

How an ultrasound works

As you’d imagine from the name, this kind of scan involves sound. High frequency sound waves are ‘bounced’ off different parts of the body, and the resulting echoes they produce are picked up by a special receptor. This is then able to turn the echoes into a moving image, which is displayed on a monitor.

Booked in for an ultrasound? Here’s what to expect

The instructions your doctor will give you before an ultrasound may vary depending on the type of scan and the part of the body under examination. You may be instructed to drink lots of water and avoid going to the toilet, or to avoid eating for a number of hours before the scan. In some cases, you may have to wear a gown for the procedure, although in most cases you can simply wear your normal clothing. Whatever instructions you’re given, it’s important to stick to them as it can help to produce more accurate results during the scan.

Ultrasound Examination

As for the procedure itself, it will usually take place in a radiology department and last between 15 and 45 minutes. Most ultrasounds are external, involving a lubricating gel being applied to the area and a small handheld probe being move slowly over the skin. The gel can be a little cold, but other than that there is no discomfort or pain to worry about.

Other types of ultrasound scan are internal and endoscopic. The former enables a specialist to look more closely at organs from inside the body, usually the womb, ovaries or prostate gland. The latter involves inserting an endoscope into the mouth and down into the body to more closely examine organs such as the stomach and oesophagus.

Both of these procedures can involve more discomfort than the more common external ultrasound, but they are usually more uncomfortable than they are painful. The radiologist or other medical professional carrying out the scan will have lots of experience in keeping patients calm and relaxed, so they will be able to guide you smoothly through the process and make it as quick as possible.

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