When you hear the word “ultrasound,” the first thing that pops into your mind is most likely the procedure used during pregnancy to check the gender of an unborn child. While sonography is widely used during pregnancy to determine the health and development of the fetus, this type of medical test has a variety of other uses, many of which you may never hear of outside a major medical center. Here are five unique uses of sonograms, some of which continue to be updated as technology advances.
An echocardiogram takes a picture of the heart muscle as it beats. Because ultrasounds do not produce static images, they can be used to show how the heart is pumping the blood. It can be used to show how well the heart is pumping and whether there are any problems with the heart valves. There are various types of echocardiograms, each looking at your heart to analyze different aspects of it:
- Stress echocardiogram. This test is used to find out if you have diseases like coronary artery disease or other issues that decrease blood flow to your heart. The test is taken before and after your heart is “stressed” through exercise to compare the results.
- Transesophageal echocardiogram. This type of test, abbreviated as a TEE, shows clearer pictures of your heart, as the probe is passed down your esophagus instead of being placed against your chest. This allows the sound waves from the probe to be less inhibited by objects like your lungs and bones.
- Doppler echocardiogram. This test measures the direction and speed of the blood flowing through your heart and blood vessels by reflecting sound waves to a transducer.
Doppler tests can also be used via ultrasound to measure blood flow throughout your blood vessels. While it is most often used to show blood flow in the legs for people with poor circulation or diabetes, it can also be used in the arms and other areas of the body. For example, a Doppler of the carotid arteries can be useful in diagnosing strokes. You may need a Doppler ultrasound if you show signs of arteriosclerosis, superficial thrombophlebitis, deep vein thrombosis, or vascular tumors.
Ultrasounds provide moving, dynamic pictures, perfect for use during other medical procedures. Doctors often use ultrasound guidance when performing biopsies of the soft tissues, such as the kidneys, liver or lymph nodes. It can also be used to guide the insertion of a chest tube, which can clear fluid in the lungs and improve breathing.
Ultrasounds are coming into vogue as a new way of examining the breast tissue for lesions that could be cancerous. Sonography is particularly helpful for looking at dense breast tissue. Today, it is mainly used after a mammogram has picked up a potential lesion. The ultrasound can detect differences between benign cysts and solid masses. Sonography is a great technology for this type of examination, since it is noninvasive and painless, and it does not use ionizing radiation. If you’ve seen abnormalities on a mammogram or a breast MRI, ultrasounds can be useful in characterizing the problem. Furthermore, MRIs and mammograms may not be available for all women (for example, those women who have a high risk of breast cancer or who are pregnant), but ultrasound uses no X-rays, and thus is safe for all.
Pelvic ultrasounds are used primarily in females who are experiences problems with their ovaries, uterus or Fallopian tubes. An ultrasound can show possible malignancies and does not give off as much radiation as a CT scan would. In women, this type of ultrasound is performed over the abdomen or through the vagina. Men who must have a pelvic ultrasound may have a rectal version.
Ultrasounds use sound waves to make images. Therefore, they are not good for looking at very dense materials, such as bones, or at looking at areas of the body that could be filled with gas or air. However, they are excellent diagnostic tools for many soft organs of the body, particularly those in the thorax. With so many subspecialties of medical sonography, you are sure to experience this test at some point in your life.