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Ultrasound Technology Plays an Instrumental Role in Patient Care

By Kenya McCullum,

An ultrasound, also known as a sonogram, is a medical procedure in which high-frequency sound waves are used to create images of different areas inside the body. During this process, a clear gel is placed on the part of the body being examined, and a transducer is moved across that area. As sound waves travel through the body, they bounce off the patient's organs and are converted into an image on a computer screen.

Ultrasounds may be preferred to other types of patient examinations because they do not emit ionizing radiation, as X-rays or CT scans do, and do not require incisions or needles. In addition, ultrasounds are able to capture images in parts of the body that are not easily accessible during X-rays, particularly in areas with soft tissue.

Types of ultrasounds

There are several types of ultrasounds, which are chosen depending on the area of the patient's body that is being examined.

Pregnancy ultrasound: Pregnancy ultrasounds are used to check the progress of a baby in the womb during different stages of development. These tests can determine the age of a fetus, monitor the baby's heart rate, confirm that a mother is carrying multiple children, and detect problems with the pregnancy. In addition, pregnancy ultrasounds may be conducted to find out if a child has signs of a developmental problem, such as Down syndrome.

There are several types of pregnancy ultrasounds. For example, for standard ultrasounds, a transducer is placed over a woman's abdomen to create images of a fetus. Fetal echocardiography is used to examine a baby's heart and identify any heart defects.

Breast ultrasound: A breast ultrasound, which takes 15 to 30 minutes to conduct, is generally used to get clarity when other tests -- such as MRIs, mammograms or self-breast examinations -- indicate abnormal breast symptoms. For example, an ultrasound can verify if what appears to be a lump is actually a cyst. In addition, these tests may be used to monitor the size of a cyst; check the cause of swelling, pain, or redness of a breast; or screen the spread of cancer in a breast.

Doppler ultrasound: Doppler ultrasounds are used to examine the flow of blood through blood vessels in different parts of the body. For example, this technology may be used to determine the cause of reduced blood flow in the arteries of the neck, look for blood clots in the legs, monitor the flow of blood in the arms or check the blood flow in the kidneys or liver after a transplant. In addition, Doppler ultrasounds are used to determine which veins are suitable to be used in a blood vessel graft or to monitor a patient's blood flow after a blood vessel surgery.

Types of Doppler ultrasounds include continuous wave Doppler ultrasounds, for which portable devices are used to find blood vessel damage in hospitalized patients; color Doppler ultrasounds, which are used to check the speed of blood flow through a vessel and duplex Doppler ultrasounds, which are used to check the direction and speed of blood.

Abdominal ultrasound: Abdominal ultrasounds are used to examine the organs in the abdomen, such as the pancreas, kidneys, gallbladder, spleen and liver. This type of ultrasound is often used for medical procedures such as finding the cause of urinary tract infections or abdominal pains; determining if a patient has kidney stones, gallstones or blocked bile ducts and finding the cause of blocked urine flow inside a kidney. In addition, abdominal ultrasounds can be used to detect tumors and to check the size and location of the patient's liver.

Preparing for an ultrasound

Patients are advised to wear comfortable clothing on the day of an ultrasound, though in some cases, patients may be required to wear a hospital gown or to partially disrobe. In addition, patients may receive special instructions before they take an ultrasound, depending on which type is being administered. For example, patients receiving a breast ultrasound may be asked to not wear deodorant, lotion or powder on the day of the test, while those taking an abdominal ultrasound may be instructed to fast before the examination.

Additional Resources for Ultrasound Technician Students:

American Pregnancy Association, "Ultrasound: Sonogram," March 2006, http://americanpregnancy.org/prenataltesting/ultrasound.html

San Joaquin Community Hospital, "Ultrasound," Accessed May 22, 2013, http://www.sjch.us/treatment/ultrasound

The New York Times, "Breast Ultrasound," Accessed May 22, 2013, http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/test/breast-ultrasound/overview.html

The New York Times, "Pregnancy Ultrasound," Accessed May 22, 2013, http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/test/pregnancy-ultrasound/overview.html

The New York Times, "Ultrasound Overview," Accessed May 22, 2013, http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/test/ultrasound/overview.html

WebMD, "Abdominal Ultrasound," December 4, 2010, http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/abdominal-ultrasound

WebMD, "Breast Ultrasound," May 7, 2010, http://women.webmd.com/guide/breast-ultrasound

WebMD, "Doppler Ultrasound," December 4, 2010, http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/doppler-ultrasound

WebMD, "What Is an Ultrasound?," May 29, 2013, http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-an-ultrasound

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