Abdominal Ultrasound

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is an abdominal ultrasound?

An abdominal ultrasound is a noninvasive, painless imaging test. Your doctor uses an ultrasound machine to look at the size, structure and movement of blood and organs inside your belly. Ultrasound, also called sonography, uses sound waves instead of X-rays (radiation) to make images of your internal organs.

Abdominal ultrasound helps diagnose diseases and conditions of the organs inside the belly. This includes problems with the stomach, liver, kidneys, bladder, intestines, gallbladder, spleen, appendix and pancreas. 

You may have an abdominal ultrasound if you have certain symptoms, such as severe or persistent belly pain or swelling, or ongoing vomiting. Your doctor may use an abdominal ultrasound if other tests do not diagnose your condition or to guide a biopsy procedure. 

Your doctor may also order a Doppler ultrasound with your abdominal ultrasound. A Doppler ultrasound makes images of blood flow through vessels that run through the abdomen, such as the aorta.

An abdominal ultrasound is only one method used to test for many diseases and conditions. Discuss all of your testing options with your doctor or healthcare provider to understand which options are right for you.

Why is an abdominal ultrasound performed? 

Your doctor may recommend an abdominal ultrasound to diagnose diseases and conditions of the abdomen including:

  • Abdominal abscess, cyst or tumor, masses with symptoms that include abdominal bloating, swelling, and pain, fever, nausea, weight loss, or a lump or mass in the abdomen.

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm, a weakened or bulging area of a large artery that can rupture and bleed heavily

  • Abdominal injury including injured or ruptured organs

  • Abdominal pain or swelling, which can be caused by many conditions. These include appendicitis, cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder), or abdominal abscess.

  • Appendicitis, an inflammation of the appendix

  • Ascites, an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. The most common cause of ascites is cirrhosis of the liver.

  • Gallstones, which can cause right upper abdominal pain

  • Hernia, bulging of an organ or other structure through a weak part of tissue or muscle 

  • Kidney stones, which can cause severe pain in the flank area of the lower back. Pain can radiate to the lower abdomen as the stone travels down the urinary tract into the bladder.

  • Pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the lower part of the stomach. It blocks passage of food from the stomach to the intestines. It is a condition seen in infants.

Who performs an abdominal ultrasound?

A radiologic technologist often performs abdominal ultrasounds. A radiologic technologist is a medical professional who is trained in medical imaging and the care of patients during imaging procedures. 

A radiologist, also called a diagnostic radiologist, will evaluate your ultrasound images. Radiologists are doctors who specialize in performing and interpreting imaging tests. Your radiologist will provide your personal doctor with the ultrasound results.

Sometimes personal doctors perform and evaluate abdominal ultrasounds at the bedside. 

How is an abdominal ultrasound performed? 

Your abdominal ultrasound will be performed in a clinic or hospital. The procedure takes a half hour or less and generally includes these steps:

  1. You dress in a patient gown and lie on a table in the ultrasound room. Patients can sometimes wear their own loose-fitting clothing. The room will be dark so that the images are easier to read on the ultrasound screen.

  2. The technologist squeezes a water-based jelly onto your abdomen to help the ultrasound wand slide across your skin. The ultrasound wand is called a transducer. The wand sends and receives the sound waves to produce the image.

  3. The technologist moves the wand gently back and forth across your belly while watching the ultrasound screen. 

  4. The technologist will gently press the wand down occasionally. You may have to shift your position or hold your breath for short periods. These steps help make good images, which helps diagnose your condition.

  5. The technologist wipes off the gel after the test. The gel is water-based and washes away easily.

  6. You may wait for a short period while the radiologic technologist or radiologist checks that the imaging is complete. Patients usually go home right after the test.

Will I feel pain?

Your comfort and relaxation is very important to both you and your care team. Abdominal ultrasound is generally a painless procedure. The water-based gel used in the procedure may feel cold and wet.

The pressure from the ultrasound wand might cause some discomfort if your abdomen is tender or painful. Take a few long, deep breaths to help yourself relax. Tell your doctor or technologist if any discomfort does not pass quickly.

What are the risks and potential complications of an abdominal ultrasound?  

There are no known risks or complications of abdominal ultrasound. Do not mistake an ultrasound for an X-ray, which uses radiation and does carry some risk. Ultrasound uses sound waves, not radiation, to produce images.

How do I prepare for my abdominal ultrasound?

You are an important member of your own healthcare team. The steps you take before your abdominal ultrasound can help obtain the most accurate results. You can prepare for an abdominal ultrasound by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Refraining from eating or drinking before the procedure as directed by your doctor. This may include not eating or drinking certain (or any) foods or beverages for up to eight to 12 hours before the ultrasound. Some ultrasounds, such as a kidney ultrasound, require drinking extra water.

Questions to ask your doctor

Facing a medical procedure can be stressful. It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a brief doctor’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your doctor with concerns and questions before your ultrasound and between appointments. 

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointment. Questions can include:

  • Why do I need an abdominal ultrasound? 

  • How long will the procedure take? 

  • How should I take my medications? 

  • When will I get the results of my test?

  • What other tests or treatments might I need?

  • When should I follow up with you?

  • When and how should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

What can I expect after my abdominal ultrasound?

Knowing what to expect after an abdominal ultrasound can help you get back to your everyday life as soon as possible.

How will I feel after the abdominal ultrasound?

Abdominal ultrasounds are painless, noninvasive imaging tests. You should not feel any aftereffects. Tell your doctor or care team if you have any pain or discomfort after the test.

Patients often eat and drink as usual and return to normal activities right after an outpatient ultrasound. Your doctor may give you specific instructions for diet and activity, depending on your condition. 

When can I go home?

You will likely go home right after an outpatient abdominal ultrasound and speak with your doctor about the results later.  The radiologist or doctor sometimes discusses the results right away, depending on your condition. 

When should I call my doctor?

It is important to keep your follow-up appointments after your abdominal ultrasound. Contact your doctor for questions and concerns between appointments. Call your doctor right away or seek immediate medical care if you have new or unusual symptoms, such as increased or severe abdominal pain. This may be a sign that your condition is getting worse. You should also call you doctor if you have not heard the results of your ultrasound as expected.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 3
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Abdominal Ultrasound. RadiologyInfo.org. http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=abdominus
  3. Ultrasound: Abdomen. KidsHealth. http://kidshealth.org/parent/system/medical/ultrasound_abdomen.html