Ultrasound scan of the ovaries

Ultrasound scans use high frequency sound waves to create a picture of a part of the body. It can show the ovaries, womb and surrounding structures. You might have this test to help diagnose ovarian cancer. 

To have an ultrasound scan of the ovaries, your doctor or radiographer moves a probe over the lower part of your tummy.

You may also have an internal vaginal ultrasound. This is when your doctor gently puts the probe into your vagina. This is also called a transvaginal ultrasound scan.

We have separate information about what happens during a transvaginal ultrasound scan. 

Why you have it

An ultrasound scan of the ovaries can show whether:

  • your ovaries are the right size
  • your ovaries look normal in texture
  • there are any cysts in your ovaries

Sometimes, in women who are past their menopause, the ovaries do not show up on an ultrasound. This means that the ovaries are small and not likely to be cancerous.

Risk of malignancy index (RMI)

Doctors can use a tool called the risk of malignancy index (RMI) to decide if an abnormality seen on an ultrasound scan is likely to be cancer or not.

This index combines the results of:

  • the ultrasound
  • CA125 Open a glossary item blood levels
  • your menopausal status. This is whether or not you are past the menopause

This gives doctors a final score. Women with a high score are referred to a specialist multidisciplinary team (MDT). They decide on which further tests and surgery may be necessary.

Your specialist may ask you to have a CT scan to show the ovaries more clearly. Sometimes though, it is not possible to diagnose ovarian cancer for certain without an operation.

If your specialist thinks it is unlikely that you have cancer, but cannot completely rule it out, they may ask you to come back for a repeat ultrasound in a few months to see if anything has changed.

If you have a suspicious looking cyst, your specialist may recommend that you have surgery to remove it. The cyst will be looked at closely in a laboratory.

How you have it

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 the scan

Before the test you might be asked to remove your clothing and put on a hospital gown. It will depend on what part of the body you're having scanned as to whether you have to undress or not. 

During the scan

You lie on the couch next to the ultrasound machine. You might be able to sit up depending on which part of your body is being scanned.

The sonographer will spread a clear gel onto your skin over the area they are checking. The gel feels cold. It helps to transmit the sound waves to the probe. The scan appears on a screen next to you. 

You might feel a little pressure as the sonographer presses the probe against your skin and moves it around the area they are scanning. Tell them if this is uncomfortable. 

If you are having an ultrasound of your tummy (abdomen) the sonographer might ask you to go to the toilets to empty your bladder during the test. They will do another scan straight after. The sonographer will let you know if you need to do this.

An ultrasound scan can take up to 45 minutes depending on what's being scanned.

Diagram of an abdominal ultrasound

What happens afterwards

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

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

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks. The doctor may be able to let you know if they have seen any abnormal areas that have been sent to the laboratory.

Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them.

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 who you can contact for information if you need to. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For information and support, you can also call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
  • The recognition and initial management of ovarian cancer
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), April 2011

  • Newly diagnosed and relapsed epithelial ovarian carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up

    J Ledermann and others; ESMO Guidelines Working Group

    Annals of Oncology. 2013 Oct;24 Suppl 6:vi24-32.

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, 9th edition
    L Dougherty and S Lister (Editors)
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

Last reviewed: 
04 Jan 2022
Next review due: 
04 Jan 2025

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