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Abdominal Ultrasound

Abdominal ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to acquire images of the abdominal organs. Unlike x-ray, ultrasound is non-ionizing radiation, so it has no known negative effects on the patient. It is often used in conjunction with other imaging modalities. Ultrasound, x-ray, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) image the body using different technologies, so each may be helpful in determining different properties of a mass for a more complete diagnosis.


Bowel gas hinders the visualization of the abdominal organs. When a loop of gas-filled bowel lies between the transducer and the organ being examined, an artifact called shadowing is seen on the image and obstructs the view of the organ. Patients who are scheduled for an abdominal ultrasound are asked to fast during the eight hours prior to the examination. This allows bowel gas to subside for optimal imaging.

Most likely, the patient will not need to undress for this examination. The patient's shirt will be pulled up around the chest and towels will be used to protect the clothing from the ultrasound gel. Ultrasound gel is water-based and will not damage clothing. Upon drying, it may look like a white splotch that can be easily removed.

abdominal ultrasound


Several organs are imaged during an abdominal ultrasound. The pancreas is located in the upper, middle region of the abdomen. The liver is a larger organ that lies in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. The size of the liver is measured. The patient usually lies on his or her back during the imaging of the liver and pancreas.

The gallbladder lies underneath the liver and must be imaged with the patient lying in two positions: on his or back, and on the left side. This allows the sonographer to differentiate between gallstones and polyps as gallstones will move within the gallbladder with the change in position. Lying on the left side also moves bowel loops toward the left side of the abdomen to create a larger sonographic window. The gallbladder wall and common bile duct are measured.

Bowel becomes more of an issue when imaging the spleen on the left side. The patient will most likely be asked to roll up on his or her right side to move bowel toward the right side of the abdomen. The size of the spleen is measured. It is usually enlarged in cases with mononucleosis. The kidneys may or may not be measured in images with the liver and spleen. A renal ultrasound is ordered if full examination of the kidneys is necessary.

Abdominal ultrasound is often used in children when radiation exposure is highly undesirable. It is often used to follow-up computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examinations to better visualize liver ducts, to determine if a mass is cystic or solid, or to assess blood flow using Doppler.

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How Do Medical Imaging Scans Work?

Medical Imaging

Medical imaging tests have made important advances in early diagnosis and treatment. There are a few different options that may be best for certain diagnoses and individuals and allow physicians to see what was impossible to view only a few decades ago. However, these imaging scans can be harmful and not all dangers are yet known.

X-Rays Are Best for Bone and Calcium Dense Tissue Scans

X-rays are the oldest imaging scans and are created by beams of radiation through the body to create an image on photographic films or a digital recording plate. X-rays are best used to take high resolution images of bones and calcium dense tissue, such as in dental images and chest X-rays for pneumonia. It can be used to take images of organs and blood vessels with the use of fluoroscopy, which is the injection of contrast dye into the body.

X-ray imaging is inexpensive and gives fast, high resolution images, as most people have experienced at the dentist. However, X-ray radiation is an ionizing radiation that is weakly carcinogenic. Over-exposure to these rays over time may cause damage to the body and increase the risks for cancer. X-rays of any part of the body are not recommended for pregnant women.

Ultrasounds Are Safe For Pregnant Women

An ultrasound is also called sonography and as the name suggests, it uses high frequency sounds to create images inside the body. Ultrasound scans are commonly used to monitor fetal development in pregnant women; however, they are also important in diagnosing abdominal organ abnormalities, aneurysms in aortas, valve problems in veins, kidney stones, tumors and growths, problems in joints and blocked ducts.

As ultrasounds don’t require ionizing radiation, they are considered less invasive and safe for pregnant women when used as required. They are also fast, easy and effective to perform as well as the most transportable and least expensive diagnostic option. However ultrasound scans are not as powerful as CT and MRI scans and show less detail and fewer structures.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging Views Detailed Internal Body Organs

Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI uses magnet and radio frequencies to creates of most internal body structures. MRI scans require large scanning equipment that gives detailed imaging of structures in the body. For finer structures a contrast dye may be used to increase the visibility of the image. MRI scans are useful to determine diagnoses in neurological, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and other soft tissues. They are also important in confirming a diagnosis of cancer.

MRI scans are time consuming and require that the patient remain very still inside a large tube-like machine. This can be traumatic and uncomfortable for patients. Though this type of imaging does not use ionizing radiation, it is not known if it is safe for pregnant women. A well known danger of MRI scans is the powerful magnetic force which can cause anything metallic in the body such as pacemakers and orthopedic screws to move or malfunction.

A CAT Scan Provides Multidimensional Cross Sectional Images

A Computed Tomography or CT or CAT scan is a complex imaging technology that makes use of several X-ray beams and electronic detection devices to scan the body and record two or multi-dimensional image. CT scans are used to get cross-sectional images of the body and make difficult diagnosis. Scans can be completed in seconds and provide very detailed images of bone, blood vessels and soft tissue such as internal organs, ducts and muscle.

CTs are important in emergencies because they are able to provide information so quickly. They are important for diagnosing strokes, brain injuries or hemorrhages, heart disease, cancers, abdominal disorders and internal injuries and are safe for patients with pacemakers. However, CT scans have a higher amount of ionizing radiation and should be used only when necessary. They are not safe for pregnant women.

Nuclear Imaging Requires Radioactive Isotopes

Nuclear imaging is the most advanced imaging technology and provides detailed views of the body. Patients are inhale, ingest or are injected with a minute amount of radioactive material which then sends radiation beams from the inside of the body. A scanner or camera is then able to pick up these beams from specific organs to capture detailed images. Nuclear imagining is commonly used in making diagnosis of cancers, tumors and cardiovascular disease.

Nuclear imaging is expensive and requires radioactive isotopes which are difficult to produce and transport. Patients may have to allow the radioactive tracer to accumulate in the body for a few hours to a few days. The radioactive material can also leach or pass from the body to other people and the environment.

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