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What is an ultrasound scan? (USS)

Ultrasound scans use sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the body. They are painless. You usually have this test in the hospital X-ray department.

The ultrasound scanner has a microphone which gives off sound waves. The radiographer moves the microphone over the area of your body that they examine. The sound waves bounce off the organs inside your body, and the microphone picks them up again. It is linked to a computer which turns the sound waves into a picture.

Having an USS

Whether you need to do anything to prepare for the scan depends on the part of your body being scanned. The scanner staff will give you instructions.

You lie on a couch next to the ultrasound machine. The doctor or radiographer spreads a clear gel onto your skin over the scanning area. They move the microphone back and forth over that area. The scans take from 5 minutes to about half an hour.

Doctors can also use a probe to do an ultrasound of the inside of the body, for example to examine your prostate gland or vagina. These tests can be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful.

An endoscopic ultrasound scan is a type of ultrasound that can examine your food pipe (oesophagus), stomach or gallbladder. This test combines an endoscopy and an ultrasound.

Results

If you have the test as an emergency you may get the results the same day. If the test is a routine one and you haven’t heard from the hospital after a couple of weeks, contact your doctor.

 

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How an ultrasound scan works

Ultrasound scans use sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the body. They are completely painless. These scans are usually done in the hospital X-ray department.

The ultrasound scanner has a microphone which gives off sound waves. The microphone is passed over your body. The sound waves bounce off the organs inside your body, and are picked up again by the microphone. The microphone is linked to a computer. This turns the reflected sound waves into a picture.

 

What will happen

A photograph of someone having an ultrasound scan

Once you have checked in with the receptionist, you will be asked to take a seat in the waiting room until a radiographer calls you.

When you are called, you may be shown to a cubicle and asked to take off your outer clothing down to your underwear and put on a hospital gown. Whether you have to undress or not will depend on the part of your body to be scanned.

You will go into the scanning room and lie on the couch next to the ultrasound machine. You may be able to sit up depending on which part of your body is being scanned. A clear gel will be spread onto your skin over the scanning site. This helps to transmit the sound waves to the microphone.

Ultrasound scans

The doctor or radiographer moves the microphone back and forth over the part of your body that is being scanned. The scan appears on the machine screen, which will be next to you. If you would like to see it, just ask but ultrasound scans are quite difficult to read and you may not be able to see very much.

Ultrasounds take from 5 minutes to about half an hour, depending on the scan. At the end of the scan, the doctor or radiographer will wipe the gel from your skin and help you down from the couch. You will be able to go home once the scan is over.

 

Preparation for the scan

Generally there is no preparation for ultrasound scans. But for particular scans, you may be asked not to eat or drink for about 6 hours beforehand. If you are having your womb scanned, you will probably be asked to come to the appointment with a full bladder. This is because the full bladder pushes the womb up so it is in a position that is easier to scan. You may need a full bladder for a bladder scan too. There will be a toilet close by, so you will be able to empty your bladder as soon as the scan is over.

 

Types of ultrasound scan

Sometimes, doctors need to put the ultrasound microphone inside the body to get a clearer picture. Most often this is done for a scan of your prostate or vagina. You may also have internal ultrasound to examine your food pipe (oesophagus), stomach or gallbladder.

 

Rectal ultrasound

If you are having your prostate gland examined, you have a rectal ultrasound. You will need to make sure you have had a bowel movement beforehand so your rectum is empty when you come for your appointment. A small ultrasound microphone is put into your back passage to get a clearer picture of the prostate. This is obviously uncomfortable, but shouldn't hurt. This type of scan does not take long.

 

Vaginal ultrasound

This is sometimes used to look at the ovaries or part of the womb. You will be asked to lie on your back with your knees bent and legs apart (as if you were having a smear test or an internal examination). If this position is difficult for you, you may be able to lie on your side with your knees drawn up to your chest. The doctor puts a small ultrasound microphone into the vagina so that the ovaries can be seen on the scan. This may be uncomfortable, but shouldn't hurt. This type of scan does not take long.

 

Endoscopic ultrasound

This is a combination of having an endoscopy and an ultrasound. This test is used to look at the wall of the oesophagus, stomach, or the gallbladder and bile duct. This test can also look at the lymph nodes in your chest and abdomen. While you are having your endoscopy, an ultrasound probe will be put through the endoscope. 

 

The results

It can take time for test results to come through. How long will depend on why you are having the scan. Usually, the scan is examined by a specialist in radiography and a report typed up. The report is then sent to your specialist, who gives the results to you. If your GP has sent you for the test, the results will be sent to the surgery.

Understandably, waiting for results can make you anxious. It usually takes a couple of weeks. If your doctor needed the results urgently, it would have been noted on the scan request form and the results will be ready sooner than that. Try to remember to ask your doctor how long you should expect to wait for the results when you are first asked to go for the test. If it is not an emergency, and you have not heard a couple of weeks after your test, ring your doctor's secretary to check if they are back.

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Updated: 13 August 2013