When the physicians in Jupiter, FL at The Medical Group of South Florida, refer our patients to our brand-new laboratory and diagnostic facility for an ultrasound test, they are sometimes surprised. If the average person knows anything at all about ultrasounds, or sonograms, they usually associate them with one of the tests physicians employ during pregnancy.
But ultrasounds are actually useful for so much more. From heart disease to liver cancer, ultrasound tests have become an invaluable diagnostic tool.
For example, echocardiograms, also performed now in our in-house laboratory, are used to evaluate the heart’s pumping ability by monitoring the heart valves’ motion and to watch how efficiently the blood flows through them. A heart-specific type of ultrasound test, echocardiograms can also detect blood clots, heart valve infections, and abnormal fluid collection around the heart. It actually gives us a view of the heart in motion without having to open the chest (i.e., perform surgery). It also detects blockages in arteries.
There is almost no organ in the abdominal cavity that can’t be monitored or evaluated with an ultrasound. The uterus, ovaries, prostate and testicles, pancreas, stomach, kidneys, bladder, spleen, gallbladder, and liver . . . all can be investigated and diagnosed through the use of ultrasound tests. The test can also be used to detect cysts or growths in these organs, and much more. Quite a range of uses for such a relatively simple test.
What is an ultrasound?
It’s a test performed using an instrument called a transducer that produces sound waves with frequencies higher than humans can hear. These sound waves are transmitted safely and painlessly through body tissue, and the resulting images are sent to a computer for display on a monitor. These sound waves pass through soft tissue but bounce back off denser tissue. For example, they will pass through the kidneys unless they encounter harder tissue such as kidney stones, in which case they will bounce—or “echo”—back. This creates an image of the kidney stones which can be seen on the monitor.
What is involved in an ultrasound test?
The test itself, lasting between 20 to 60 minutes depending on what information is being sought, is completely painless. The person performing the test, called a sonographer, applies lubricating gel to the part of the body being tested. This allows the transducer to glide easily over the skin. Other types of internal ultrasounds may employ a probe to evaluate the urinary tract or reproductive organs. An endoscopy, for example, will use both light and ultrasound to diagnose parts of the digestive system through an endoscope introduced through the mouth.
Usually no preparation is involved, but sometimes fasting is required prior to the test, or drinking large amounts of water prior to the procedure, in the case of fetal ultrasounds.
Are they safe?
Ultrasounds are considered perfectly safe when administered by a professional health care provider. They have been used during pregnancy and for other diagnostic uses for 20 years, with no definitive adverse effects reported. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, cautions that, just to err on the safe side, the use of sonograms outside of medically necessary testing should be discouraged during pregnancy.