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An ultrasound is a safe and painless imaging tool that uses sound waves to produce a real-time display of your organs, tissues and even blood flowing through your blood vessels. Doctors use ultrasounds to make informed diagnoses and to guide medical procedures.

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How does sound produce images?

Have you ever seen blips on a radar display? Air traffic controllers use radar to help guide pilots, whatever the weather. You can even thank Doppler radar for informing you when stormy days are ahead. Much like radar technology, ultrasounds use waves to see what the naked eye can't.

Ultrasounds use a small, hand-held wand known as a transducer, which emits high-frequency sound waves. These sound waves travel until they hit a boundary, like your organs or other soft tissues, and create an echo.

When the echoes return to the transducer, they produce real-time images on the ultrasound monitor. This allows your doctor to see anything from blood flow to a baby to suspicious lumps or even tumors.


Kim-Yen Vo, Ultrasound Technologist, pointing at computer screen and talking to patient while performing ultrasound at MelroseWakefield Hospital.
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While there are many uses for ultrasounds, people often connect ultrasounds to pregnancy and a parent’s first look at their baby. Ultrasounds are a pain-free way to assess a variety of medical conditions, such as:

Aortic aneurysm
Atrial fibrillation
Congenital heart defects
Ectopic pregnancy
Heart disease
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)


We can perform external ultrasounds (across your skin) or internal ultrasounds (transvaginal). Here’s what you can expect during an external ultrasound:

  • Your sonographer will ask you to lie down or get in a comfortable position.
  • A small amount of gel is directly applied to the skin over the area that’s being examined.
  • We guide a transducer over the examined area, which displays real-time images of your internal structure on a separate monitor. 

Types of ultrasound

To better understand the inner workings of your body, we offer the following ultrasound exams.

Abdominal and gallbladder

The abdominal and gallbladder ultrasound exam provides a real-time look at your gallbladder, liver, spleen, pancreas and kidneys. It's very important that you don't eat or drink after midnight or at least 6 hours before your ultrasound exam. Your doctor will give you more specific instructions as needed.

Bladder and kidneys

One of the many roles of your kidneys is to make urine. The urine travels through the urinary tract and passes through the bladder before exiting the urethra. A bladder and kidney ultrasound evaluates how these two body parts function in creating and moving urine.

Not every type of ultrasound requires a full bladder, but the fuller, the better for this one. We ask that you drink 32 ounces of water before your exam, and hold off on going to the bathroom until your exam is done.


Your doctor may order a breast ultrasound if they detect something suspicious during your mammogram.

This simple procedure takes about 10–20 minutes and is similar to ultrasounds done on pregnant people. A sonographer scans the breast area using sound waves to produce images that a radiologist then examines.


A carotid ultrasound is a safe and painless way to examine the narrowness of the carotid arteries and blood flow. Everyone has a carotid artery on each side of the neck. These arteries have the important job of pumping blood from your heart to your brain.

This ultrasound doesn’t require any upfront preparation.


A musculoskeletal ultrasound generates real-time, high-resolution images of:

  • Joints
  • Ligaments
  • Muscles
  • Soft tissue 
  • Tendons

Not only can musculoskeletal ultrasounds help diagnose a condition, but they're used to treat them, too. These handy imaging tools help treat pain and inflammation caused by musculoskeletal injuries and disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Your doctor can perform a safe and painless ultrasound-guided injection or aspiration (drainage) in the affected area and provide relief within 30 minutes.

Nuchal translucency screening

Also called the nuchal fold scan, the nuchal translucency (NT) screening is a special type of ultrasound performed 11–14 weeks into pregnancy that evaluates the baby’s risk of Down syndrome, other chromosomal abnormalities and congenital heart problems.

The NT screening measures the translucent space in the back of the baby’s neck (known as the nuchal). Babies with abnormalities often accumulate more fluid in the nuchal during the first trimester, causing this space to be larger than average.

If your doctor notices more fluid in your baby’s nuchal, they’ll present your options for further tests like the chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or amniocentesis to determine if your baby is actually affected by the extra gathering of fluid.


Obstetrical ultrasounds provide real-time insights into the size and anatomy of your growing baby.

If you’re having an obstetrical ultrasound before hitting 18 weeks of pregnancy, we’ll ask that you drink 32 ounces of water before your exam and hold off on going to the bathroom until your exam is complete.

Having a full bladder offers an excellent window to the organs in your pelvic region. A full bladder actually moves the intestines aside so technologists can get a clearer look at the growing baby, ovaries and uterus.


A pelvic ultrasound gets a close-up look at a person’s uterus and ovaries. While a pelvic ultrasound examines the same organs as a transvaginal ultrasound, the major difference is how the ultrasound is performed.

Pelvic ultrasounds use a transducer outside the body, whereas a transvaginal ultrasound inserts the transducer into the vagina to evaluate the uterus and ovaries.

Peripheral arterial studies

A peripheral arterial study is an ultrasound exam that checks and measures blood flow to your legs. Peripheral artery disease is a common condition where plaque builds up in your arteries and can affect blood flow to your limbs.


Scrotal ultrasounds look at the following 3 aspects:

  • Size of testicles
  • Blood flow of the testicles 
  • If nodules are present 

You don’t have to take extra steps to prepare for this ultrasound.


A thyroid ultrasound focuses on the size of the thyroid gland and if nodules are present. You don’t have to take extra steps to prepare for this ultrasound.


A transvaginal ultrasound offers a very detailed look at a person’s ovaries, reproductive anatomy and uterus.

While a transvaginal ultrasound examines the same organs as a pelvic ultrasound, the major difference is how the ultrasound is performed. A transvaginal ultrasound inserts the transducer into the vagina to evaluate the uterus and ovaries, whereas pelvic ultrasounds use a transducer outside the body.


Venous ultrasounds focus on the blood flow in your arms and legs. Your technician will keep a close eye out for any possible blood clots. You don’t have to take extra steps to prepare for this ultrasound.

Anasuya Gunturi MD, PhD talks with patient at Lowell General Hospital's Women's Wellness Center clinic appointment.
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Kim-Yen Vo, Melrose Wakefield Hospital Ultrasound Technologist, pointing at screen while providing an ultrasound to patient.
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