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Abdominal ultrasound

Definition

Abdominal ultrasound is an imaging procedure used to examine the internal organs of the abdomen, including the liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, and kidneys. The blood vessels that lead to some of these organs can also be looked at with ultrasound.

Alternative Names

Ultrasound - abdomen; Abdominal sonogram

How the Test is Performed

An ultrasound machine creates images that allow various organs in the body to be examined. The machine sends out high-frequency sound waves, which reflect off body structures to create a picture. A computer receives these reflected waves and uses them to create a picture. Unlike with x-rays or CT scans, there is no ionizing radiation exposure with this test.

You will be lying down for the procedure. A clear, water-based conducting gel is applied to the skin over the abdomen. This helps with the transmission of the sound waves. A handheld probe called a transducer is then moved over the abdomen.

You may be asked to change position so that the health care provider can examine different areas. You may also be asked to hold your breath for short periods of time during the examination.

The procedure usually takes less than 30 minutes.

How to Prepare for the Test

Preparation for the procedure depends on the nature of the problem and your age. Usually patients are asked to not eat or drink for several hours before the examination. Your health care provider will advise you about specific preparation.

How the Test Will Feel

There is little discomfort. The conducting gel may feel slightly cold and wet.

Why the Test is Performed

Your health care provider may order this test to:

  • Determine the cause of abdominal pain
  • Determine the cause of kidney infections
  • Diagnose a hernia
  • Diagnose and monitor tumors and cancers
  • Diagnose or treat ascites
  • Learn why there is swelling of an abdominal organ
  • Look for damage after an injury
  • Look for stones in the gallbladder or kidney
  • Look for the cause of abnormal blood tests such as liver function tests or kidney tests
  • Look for the cause of a fever

The reason for the test will depend on your symptoms.

Normal Results

The organs examined appear normal.

What Abnormal Results Mean

The meaning of abnormal results depends on the organ being examined and the type of problem. Talk to your health care provider if you have any questions or concerns.

An abdominal ultrasound can reveal many possible conditions, including:

Risks

There is no documented risk. No ionizing radiation exposure is involved.

References

Cosgrove DO, Meire HB, Lim A, Eckersley RJ. Ultrasound: general principles. In: Adam A, Dixon AK, eds. Grainger & Allisonn's Diagnostic Radiology: A Textbook of Medical Imaging. 5th ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone;2008:chap 3.

Pickhardt PJ. Diagnostic imaging procedures in gastroenterology. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 13.


Review Date: 11/21/2010
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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