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Ultrasound – Why It’s Done?

Obstetric ultrasound on pregnant womanWhen most people hear the term “ultrasound” they automatically think of an expectant mother going in for a sonogram to see her baby for the very first time. While this is true, there are numerous other reasons why ultrasounds are performed. As follows are some of the reasons why an ultrasound is done.

Diagnostic Purposes

To diagnose means to identify if there is a disease or abnormality in a patient’s body and what that disease or abnormality may be. As follows are just some examples of how and why ultrasound is used for diagnostic purposes:

  • Heart: An ultrasound of the heart (an echocardiogram) is used to diagnose cardiac diseases or problems and also to assess potential damage from a heart attack. Examples include identifying signs of coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy.
  • Blood Vessels:  Ultrasounds performed on the blood vessels around the body may be performed to determine whether veins or arteries are blocked (i.e. major arteries in the neck associated with stroke), deep vein thrombosis, aneurysms and more.
  • Abdomen: An abdominal ultrasound may be used to image the appendix, spleen, liver, pancreas, kidney and other organs and tissues in this area of the body. It may be used to diagnose hernias, kidney stones, gall stones, liver cirrhosis, appendicitis, pancreatitis, tumors, jaundice and more.
  • Neck: In addition to performing ultrasounds on the carotid arteries in the neck to determine if there are blockages, a neck ultrasound may also be performed to image the thyroid gland to look for nodules or tumors.
  • Breast: Ultrasounds are usually performed on breasts if an abnormality (i.e. potential tumor) was caught on a mammogram. For younger females, an ultrasound may be more effective than a mammogram because their breast tissue tends to be denser.
  • Female Reproductive System: In obstetrics, a pregnant woman’s ultrasound is performed to assess the health of her fetus, determine the gender, approximate age of conception and to determine if there are any complications or abnormalities. As part of a gynecologic ultrasound, a female’s reproductive system is imaged to look for signs of uterine fibroids, endometriosis, ovarian cysts and other complications.
  • Male Reproductive System: Ultrasounds are done on the male’s reproductive system, such as his testicles and prostate, to detect abnormalities and injuries, possible signs of infertility, cancer and more.
  • Musculoskeletal System: Ultrasounds may also be performed on the musculoskeletal system to identify tears, signs of arthritis, hip dislocations in infants, fluid build-up in joints and more.
  • Eyes: Ultrasounds of the eyes may be performed to identify cancerous tumors, detached retinas, ocular hemorrhages and more.

Therapeutic Purposes

Ultrasound is better known for its diagnostic functions, however, its therapeutic capabilities predates its imaging capacities. Some examples of how ultrasound is applied to treatment plans include:

  • ESWL (Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy): ESWL combines ultrasound, X-rays and acoustic waves to break up and destroy kidney stones and gallbladder stones. It is the least invasive (non-surgical) treatment for urinary stone conditions.
  • HIFU (High Intensity Frequency Ultrasound): HIFU is a form of ultrasound that targets damaged or diseased tissue and directs high-intensity sound waves towards it in order to heat and destroy it. FDA-approved clinical trials have been underway for using HIFU to treat prostate cancer. (Elsewhere in the world, the ultrasound treatment has proved effective). The FDA approved of HIFU treatments for uterine fibroids back in 2004.
  • Sports injuries: Some physical therapists, chiropractors and occupational therapists employ ultrasound when treating their patients with problems such as tendinitis or plantar fasciitis; circulating the ultrasound probe over the damaged area is said to help relieve pain and soften scar tissue.  Separate from ultrasound, MRI’s are also playing an important role in diagnosing sports injuries.
  • Ultrasound as a Guide: Ultrasound assists with treatments where a needle needs to be inserted into a hard-to-see location, such as when an abscess needs to be drained or during a catheterization or biopsy. The ultrasound acts as a surgeon’s or physician’s “eyes”.


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