Abdominal Ultrasound

Written by Brian Krans | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Ultrasound scans use high-frequency sound waves to capture images and video. This helps doctors view portions of the body’s interior without making an incision.

Just as sonar and radar help the military detect planes and ships, ultrasound helps doctors understand what’s going on inside your body. This test is most commonly used on pregnant women to view and examine their fetuses.

Abdominal ultrasounds are used for a variety of reasons. They are non-invasive and widely available.

Why an Abdominal Ultrasound Is Performed

Abdominal ultrasounds are used to check ailments of the major organs in the abdominal cavity. These organs include your gallbladder, kidneys, liver, pancreas, and spleen.

Conditions for which your doctor may request an ultrasound include:

  • abdominal aortic aneurysms
  • blood clots
  • enlarged organs
  • fluid in the abdominal cavity
  • gallstones
  • kidney blockage or cancer
  • kidney stones
  • liver cancer
  • pain in the abdomen
  • tumors

According to the Mayo Clinic, men ages 65 to 75 who are current or former smokers should be screened with an abdominal ultrasound to check for an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Risks of an Abdominal Ultrasound

An abdominal ultrasound carries no risks. Unlike X-rays or CT scans, ultrasounds use no radiation, which is why they are the preferred method for examining fetuses.

You may feel slight discomfort during the procedure if you’re experiencing pain in your abdomen. Alert your technician if the pain becomes severe.

How to Prepare for the Test

Your doctor will usually instruct you to fast for eight to 12 hours before your ultrasound. This is because undigested food can block the sound waves, making it difficult for the technician to get a clear picture.

You should, however, continue to drink water and take your medications as instructed.

For an examination of the gallbladder, liver, pancreas, or spleen, you may be instructed to eat a fat-free meal the evening before your test, before beginning your fast.

How the Test Is Performed

Before the exam, you will be asked to change into a hospital gown. You will begin by lying down on a table with your abdomen exposed.

An ultrasound technician (sonographer) will apply a special lubricating jelly to your abdomen. This is done to prevent friction while they rub the ultrasound transducer, which looks like a microphone, on your skin to help transmit the sound waves.

The transducer sends high-frequency sound waves through your body. These waves, which are too high-pitched for the human ear to hear, echo as they hit a dense object, such as an organ. Those echoes are then reflected back into a computer.

Depending on the area being examined, you may need to change positions so the technician can better access those areas.

The gel will be cleaned off your abdomen. After the procedure, which typically lasts less than 30 minutes, you will be free to go about your day.

After the Test

At a follow-up appointment, your doctor will discuss with you the results and any treatment options if the test turns up anything of note.

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