An ultrasound is a test that uses sound waves to create a picture of what’s inside your body. When this test is used for bladder issues, like an overactive bladder, it can help a doctor figure out the cause.

This noninvasive test is usually performed on a full bladder, but it shouldn’t be painful. The results of this test are used by a doctor to come up with a diagnosis and treatment plan to help relieve your symptoms.

This article will explore the specifics of bladder ultrasounds, what they can detect, and what to expect if you’re having one.

How does ultrasound work?

Ultrasound, or sonography, uses high frequency sound waves to help diagnose all sorts of medical conditions. As the sound waves hit things like soft tissue, fluid, or bone, the waves are reflected back to the transmitter to create a simple, two-dimensional image.

Unlike X-rays or other imaging tests, ultrasound does not use any form of radiation. This makes this test both safe and noninvasive.

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A bladder ultrasound is done when a doctor needs to closely examine the structure or function of your bladder.

The bladder is a muscular sac that receives urine from your kidneys, stretching to hold the fluid until you release it during urination. Bladder control, or your ability to control these muscles, makes urination a planned and purposeful task.

However, there are many issues that can complicate the process of urination.

About a quarter of all people in the United States experience some level of incontinence, or the inability to hold urine in the bladder until you purposely release it.

There are many causes of incontinence, and it can be difficult for a doctor to pinpoint a reason for the problem just by asking you questions or examining the outside of your body.

The following symptoms may lead a doctor to order a bladder ultrasound:

In some facilities, you may need to see a special technician for an ultrasound. But some medical offices can do this test in the examination room during a routine appointment.

Whether you have the test done in an examination room or an imaging center, the process will be similar:

  1. Make sure your bladder is full. While this can make the gentle pressure applied during the ultrasound a bit uncomfortable, a full bladder can help shift other organs, like the bowels or uterus, to get a clear picture of the bladder. Sound waves also travel better through fluids, so a doctor can get a better picture when these beams travel through a full bladder.
  2. Get undressed. When your doctor or technician is ready to begin the test, you will be asked to remove your clothes — or at least your pants and underwear. You may be given a hospital gown or drape for the test.
  3. Get in position. You will need to be lying down for this test.
  4. Gel is applied. Your technician will apply gel to the skin over your pelvic area. This gel helps transmit the sound waves from the transducer, or ultrasound probe, into your body.
  5. The scan begins. You will not feel the ultrasound waves as they are beamed inside you, but you may feel your clinician moving the transducer across the surface of your skin between your belly button and pubic bone in order to examine the entire bladder.
  6. See your bladder. The sound waves will produce a whooshing sound and display live images of the inside of your bladder. You may be able to see these pictures during the test. The technician will record samples and still images for a specialist to review.
  7. Done! When all the images are collected, the technician will wipe the gel from your skin, and you can empty your bladder and get dressed.

Simple types of bladder ultrasounds, called bladder scans, can deliver immediate results. These scans are usually used only to measure the amount of urine in your bladder. A diagnostic bladder ultrasound produces more complicated images about the size, fullness, and lining of the bladder.

A doctor might understand what the ultrasound is showing, but a radiologist will typically interpret the images and write a report for your doctor to review.

The doctor will make an official diagnosis after an ultrasound based on the report from the radiologist. Apart from overactive bladder, a bladder ultrasound may also be able to help diagnose bladder cancer.

After a diagnosis, the doctor can begin treatments or therapies to help your symptoms, such as medications or pelvic floor exercises. Sometimes, more testing may be needed.

If the doctor isn’t certain of your diagnosis after a bladder ultrasound, they might order other tests.

Some other tests that can be used to examine the bladder include:

There are no risks or side effects from a bladder ultrasound.

You may be uncomfortable from a full bladder during the test, but the entire process is noninvasive, painless, and should take less than an hour.

If you have medical insurance, your copayment for a bladder ultrasound can vary or may even be free. Without insurance, the average cost of an ultrasound in the United States is between about $250 and $400.

If you have Medicare, an ultrasound may be covered under your Part A coverage if you have the procedure during an inpatient hospital stay.

At an outpatient facility, an ultrasound is covered by Medicare Part B. Your share of the cost can be between about $17 and $30 depending on where the test is done.

A bladder ultrasound is a painless and noninvasive tool that can help you get answers for your bladder problems.

If you experience things like urine leaking or incontinence, a doctor may want to do an ultrasound of your bladder to help make an accurate diagnosis.

Overactive bladder is a common cause for these symptoms, and an ultrasound can be used to help rule out other issues, like bladder cancer or structural problems.