Abdominal Ultrasound

About abdominal ultrasound scanning. Ultrasound technology allows doctors to ‘‘see’’ inside a patient without resorting to surgery. A transmitter sends high frequency sound waves into the body, where they bounce off the different tissues and organs to produce a distinctive pattern of echoes. A receiver ‘‘hears’’ the returning echo pattern and forwards it to a computer, which translates the data into an image on a television screen. Because ultrasound can distinguish subtle variations between soft, fluid-filled tissues, it is particularly useful in providing diagnostic images of the abdomen. Ultrasound can also be used in treatment.


The potential medical applications of ultrasound were first recognized in the 1940s as an outgrowth of the sonar technology developed to detect submarines during World War II. The first useful medical images were produced in the early 1950s, and, by 1965, ultrasound quality had improved to the point that it came into general medical use. Improvements in the technology, application, and interpretation of ultrasound continue. Its low cost, versatility, safety and speed have brought it into the top drawer of medical imaging techniques.

While pelvic ultrasound is widely known and commonly used for fetal monitoring during pregnancy, ultrasound is also routinely used for general abdominal imaging. It has great advantage over x-ray imaging technologies in that it does not damage tissues with ionizing radiation. Ultrasound is also generally far better than plain x rays at distinguishing the subtle variations of soft tissue structures, and can be used in any of several modes, depending on the need at hand.

As an imaging tool, abdominal ultrasound generally is warranted for patients afflicted with: chronic or acute abdominal pain; abdominal trauma; an obvious or suspected abdominal mass; symptoms of liver disease, pancreatic disease, gallstones, spleen disease, kidney disease and urinary blockage; or symptoms of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Specifically:

  • Abdominal pain. Whether acute or chronic, pain can signal a serious problem—from organ malfunction or injury to the presence of malignant growths. Ultrasound scanning can help doctors quickly sort through potential causes when presented with general or ambiguous symptoms. All of the major abdominal organs can be studied for signs of disease that appear as changes in size, shape and internal structure.
  • Abdominal trauma. After a serious accident, such as a car crash or a fall, internal bleeding from injured abdominal organs is often the most serious threat to survival. Neither the injuries nor the bleeding are immediately apparent. Ultrasound is very useful as an initial scan when abdominal trauma is suspected, and it can be used to pinpoint the location, cause, and severity of hemorrhaging. In the case of puncture wounds, from a bullet for example, ultrasound can locate the foreign object and provide a preliminary survey of the damage. The easy portability and versatility of ultrasound technology has brought it into common emergency room use, and even into limited ambulance service.  
  • Abdominal mass. Abnormal growths—tumors, cysts, abscesses, scar tissue and accessory organs—can be located and tentatively identified with ultrasound. In particular, potentially malignant solid tumors can be distinguished from benign fluid-filled cysts and abscesses. Masses and malformations in any organ or part of the abdomen can be found.  
  • Liver disease. The types and underlying causes of liver disease are numerous, though jaundice tends to be a general symptom. Ultrasound can differentiate between many of the types and causes of liver malfunction, and is particularly good at identifying obstruction of the bile ducts and cirrhosis, which is characterized by abnormal fibrous growths and reduced blood flow.  
  • Pancreatic disease. Inflammation and malformation of the pancreas are readily identified by ultrasound, as are pancreatic stones (calculi), which can disrupt proper functioning.  
  • Gallstones. Gallstones cause more hospital admissions than any other digestive malady. These calculi can cause painful inflammation of the gallbladder and also obstruct the bile ducts that carry digestive enzymes from the gallbladder and liver to the intestines. Gallstones are readily identifiable with ultrasound.  
  • Spleen disease. The spleen is particularly prone to injury during abdominal trauma. It may also become painfully inflamed when beset with infection or cancer. These conditions also lend themselves well to ultrasonic inspection and diagnosis.  
  • Kidney disease. The kidneys are also prone to traumatic injury and are the organs most likely to form calculi, which can block the flow of urine and cause blood poisoning (uremia). A variety of diseases causing distinct changes in kidney morphology can also lead to complete kidney failure. Ultrasound imaging has proven extremely useful in diagnosing kidney disorders.
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm. This is a bulging weak spot in the abdominal aorta, which supplies blood directly from the heart to the entire lower body. These aneurysms are relatively common and increase in prevalence with age. A burst aortic aneurysm is imminently life-threatening. However, they can be readily identified and monitored with ultrasound before acute complications result.

Ultrasound technology can also be used for treatment purposes, most frequently as a visual aid during surgical procedures—such as guiding needle placement to drain fluid from a cyst, or to extract tumor cells for biopsy. Increasingly, direct therapeutic applications for ultrasound are being developed.

The direct therapeutic value of ultrasonic waves lies in their mechanical nature. They are shock waves, just like audible sound, and vibrate the materials through which they pass. These vibrations are mild, virtually unnoticeable at the frequencies and intensities used for imaging. Properly focused however, high-intensity ultrasound can be used to heat and physically agitate targeted tissues.

High-intensity ultrasound is used routinely to treat soft tissue injuries, such as strains, tears and associated scarring. The heating and agitation are believed to promote rapid healing through increased circulation. Strongly focused, high-intensity, high-frequency ultrasound can also be used to physically destroy certain types of tumors, as well as gallstones and other types of calculi. Developing new treatment applications for ultrasound is an active area of medical research.


Properly performed, ultrasound imaging is virtually without risk or side effects. Some patients report feeling a slight tingling and/or warmth while being scanned, but most feel nothing at all. Ultrasound waves of appropriate frequency and intensity are not known to cause or aggravate any medical condition, though any woman who thinks she might be pregnant should raise the issue with her doctor before undergoing an abdominal ultrasound.

The value of ultrasound imaging as a medical tool, however, depends greatly on the quality of the equipment used and the skill of the medical personnel operating it. Improperly performed and/or interpreted, ultrasound can be worse than useless if it indicates that a problem exists where there is none, or fails to detect a significant condition. Basic ultrasound equipment is relatively inexpensive to obtain, and any doctor with the equipment can perform the procedure whether qualified or not. Patients should not hesitate to verify the credentials of technicians and doctors performing ultrasounds, as well as the quality of the equipment used and the benefits of the proposed procedure.

In cases where ultrasound is used as a treatment tool, patients should educate themselves about the proposed procedure with the help of their doctors, as is appropriate before any surgical procedure. Also, any abdominal ultrasound procedure, diagnostic or therapeutic, may be hampered by a patient’s body type or other factors, such as the presence of excessive bowel gas (which is opaque to ultrasound). In particular, very obese people are often not good candidates for abdominal ultrasound.


Ultrasound includes all sound waves above the frequency of human hearing—about 20 thousand hertz, or cycles per second. Medical ultrasound generally uses frequencies between one and 10 million hertz (1–10 MHz). Higher frequency ultrasound waves produce more detailed images, but are also more readily absorbed and so cannot penetrate as deeply into the body. Abdominal ultrasound imaging is generally performed at frequencies between 2–5 MHz.

An ultrasound machine consists of two parts: the transducer and the analyzer. The transducer both produces the sound waves that penetrate the body and receives the reflected echoes. Transducers are built around piezoelectric ceramic chips. (Piezoelectric refers to electricity that is produced when you put pressure on certain crystals such as quartz). These ceramic chips react to electric pulses by producing sound waves (they are transmitting waves) and react to sound waves by producing electric pulses (receiving). Bursts of high frequency electric pulses supplied to the transducer causes it to produce the scanning sound waves. The transducer then receives the returning echoes, translates them back into electric pulses and sends them to the analyzer–a computer that organizes the data into an image on a television screen.

Because sound waves travel through all the body’s tissues at nearly the same speed—about 3,400 miles per hour—the microseconds it takes for each echo to be received can be plotted on the screen as a distance into the body. The relative strength of each echo, a function of the specific tissue or organ boundary that produced it, can be plotted as a point of varying brightness. In this way, the echoes are translated into a picture. Tissues surrounded by bone or filled with gas (the stomach, intestines and bowel) cannot be imaged using ultrasound, because the waves are blocked or become randomly scattered.

Four different modes of ultrasound are used in medical imaging:

  1. A-mode. This is the simplest type of ultrasound in which a single transducer scans a line through the body with the echoes plotted on screen as a function of depth. This method is used to measure distances within the body and the size of internal organs. Therapeutic ultrasound aimed at a specific tumor or calculus is also A-mode, to allow for pinpoint accurate focus of the destructive wave energy.
  2. B-mode. In B-mode ultrasound, a linear array of transducers simultaneously scans a plane through the body that can be viewed as a two-dimensional image on screen. Ultrasound probes containing more than 100 transducers in sequence form the basis for these most commonly used scanners, which cost about $50,000.
  3. M-Mode. The M stands for motion. A rapid sequence of B-mode scans whose images follow each other in sequence on screen enables doctors to see and measure range of motion, as the organ boundaries that produce reflections move relative to the probe. M-mode ultrasound has been put to particular use in studying heart motion.
  4. Doppler mode. Doppler ultrasonography includes the capability of accurately measuring velocities of moving material, such as blood in arteries and veins. The principle is the same as that used in radar guns that measure the speed of a car on the highway. Doppler capability is most often combined with B-mode scanning to produce images of blood vessels from which blood flow can be directly measured. This technique is used extensively to investigate valve defects, arteriosclerosis and hypertension, particularly in the heart, but also in the abdominal aorta and the portal vein of the liver. These machines cost about $250,000.

The actual procedure for a patient undergoing an abdominal ultrasound is relatively simple, regardless of the type of scan or its purpose. Fasting for at least eight hours prior to the procedure ensures that the stomach is empty and as small as possible, and that the intestines and bowels are relatively inactive. Fasting also allows the gall bladder to be seen, as it contracts after eating and may not be seen if the stomach is full. In some cases, a full bladder helps to push intestinal folds out of the way so that the gas they contain does not disrupt the image. The patient’s abdomen is then greased with a special gel that allows the ultrasound probe to glide easily across the skin while transmitting and receiving ultrasonic pulses.

This procedure is conducted by a doctor with the assistance of a technologist skilled in operating the equipment. The probe is moved around the abdomen to obtain different views of the target areas. The patient will likely be asked to change positions from side to side and to hold their breath as necessary to obtain the desired views. Discomfort during the procedure is minimal.

The many types and uses of ultrasound technology makes it difficult to generalize about the time and costs involved. Relatively simple imaging—scanning a suspicious abdominal mass or a suspected abdominal aortic aneurysm—will take about half an hour to perform and will cost a few hundred dollars or more, depending on the quality of the equipment, the operator and other factors. More involved techniques such as multiple M-mode and Doppler-enhanced scans, or cases where the targets not well defined in advance, generally take more time and are more expensive.

Regardless of the type of scan used and the potential difficulties encountered, ultrasound remains faster and less expensive than computed tomography scans (CT), its primary rival in abdominal imaging. Furthermore, as abdominal ultrasounds are generally undertaken as ‘‘medically necessary’’ procedures designed to detect the presence of suspected abnormalities, they are covered under most types of major medical insurance in the US. As always, though, the patient would be wise to confirm that their coverage extends to the specific procedure proposed. For non-emergency situations, most US underwriters stipulate prior approval as a condition of coverage.

Specific conditions for which ultrasound may be selected as a treatment option—certain types of tumors, lesions, kidney stones and other calculi, muscle and ligament injuries, etc.—are described in detail under the appropriate entries in this encyclopedia.


A patient undergoing abdominal ultrasound will be advised by their physician about what to expect and how to prepare. As mentioned above, preparations generally include fasting and arriving for the procedure with a full bladder, if necessary. This preparation is particularly useful if the gallbladder, ovaries or veins are to be examined. Aftercare In general, no aftercare related to the abdominal ultrasound procedure itself is required.


Abdominal ultrasound carries with it no recognized risks or side effects, if properly performed using appropriate frequency and intensity ranges. Sensitive tissues, particularly those of the reproductive organs, could possibly sustain damage if violently vibrated by overly intense ultrasound waves. In general though, such damage would only result from improper use of the equipment.

Any woman who thinks she might be pregnant should raise this issue with her doctor before undergoing an abdominal ultrasound, as a fetus in the early stages of development could be injured by ultrasound meant to probe deeply recessed abdominal organs.

Normal results

As a diagnostic imaging technique, a normal abdominal ultrasound is one that indicates the absence of the suspected condition that prompted the scan. For example, symptoms such as a persistent cough, labored breathing, and upper abdominal pain suggest the possibility of, among other things, an abdominal aortic aneurysm. An ultrasound scan that indicates the absence of an aneurysm would rule out this life-threatening condition and point to other, less serious causes.

Abnormal results

Because abdominal ultrasound imaging is generally undertaken to confirm a suspected condition, the results of a scan often will prove abnormal—that is they will confirm the diagnosis, be it kidney stones, cirrhosis of the liver or an aortic aneurysm. At that point, appropriate medical treatment as prescribed by a patient’s doctor is in order.