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Ultrasound scan

Ultrasound scans use high frequency sound waves to create a picture of a part of the body.

They can show up changes, including abnormal growths. You might have one to diagnose a cancer or find out if it has spread.

The ultrasound scanner has a microphone that gives off sound waves. The sound waves bounce off the organs inside your body and a microphone picks them up. The microphone links to a computer that turns the sound waves into a picture.

You usually have them in the hospital x-ray department.

Diagram of an abdominal ultrasound

Why you might have an ultrasound

Your doctor might arrange for you to have an ultrasound scan if you have symptoms of cancer that started in the liver (primary liver cancer). 

People who are at high risk of liver cancer might have screening with ultrasound every 6 months to check for growths in the liver.

Preparing for your scan

Check your appointment letter for any instructions about how to prepare for your scan.

You might need to stop eating for 6 hours beforehand. Let the scan team know if this will be a problem for any reason, for example if you are diabetic.

They might ask you to drink plenty before your scan so that you have a comfortably full bladder.

Take your medicines as normal unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

Before your ultrasound scan

Once you have checked in with the receptionist, you will be asked to take a seat in the waiting room until the doctor (radiologist) or sonographer calls you. A sonographer is a trained professional who specialises in ultrasound scanning.

When they call you, they might show you into a cubicle and ask you to take off your outer clothing down to your underwear and put on a hospital gown. 

You might have an injection of dye (contrast) before your ultrasound. The dye can help to show up certain parts of your body. 

During your ultrasound

The doctor or sonographer presses the microphone against your skin and moves it back and forth over the part of your body they are scanning. You might feel pressure but it does not usually feel uncomfortable.

The scan appears on the screen, which will be next to you. If you would like to see it, just ask.

Ultrasounds take from 5 minutes to about half an hour.

What happens afterwards

You can eat and drink normally after the test. And you can go straight home or back to work.

Possible risks

An ultrasound scan is a very safe procedure. It doesn’t involve radiation and there are usually no side effects.

Getting your results

It can take time for the test results to come through. Usually a specialist in radiography looks at the scan and produces a report.  

Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them. You usually get your results within 1 or 2 weeks. Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can contact them for information if you need to. It might help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For information and support, you can contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
04 Apr 2018
  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th edition)
    L Dougherty and S Lister 
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015