If you have a lump in your breast or other changes in your tissue or nipple, an ultrasound may help determine the cause.
A breast ultrasound is a type of imaging test that a doctor may order to check for tumors or other breast abnormalities. A breast ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce detailed images of the inside of your breast.
To conduct a conventional breast ultrasound, a healthcare professional will use a handheld device called a transducer to create images of your breast.
Alternatively, they may conduct an automated breast ultrasound (ABUS) or automated whole-breast ultrasound (AWBUS). This type of ultrasound uses a larger transducer to create a 3-D ultrasound image of your entire breast.
Scientists are also studying the use of contrast-enhanced breast ultrasound to create clearer pictures of breast tumors and other abnormalities.
In contrast-enhanced ultrasound, a healthcare professional injects or infuses a contrast agent into one of your veins. This substance changes how sound waves move through your body to create clearer ultrasound images.
Unlike X-rays and CT scans, ultrasounds don’t use radiation and are considered safe for pregnant people.
A breast ultrasound is often performed as a follow-up to a mammogram, which is a type of X-ray used to screen for breast cancer.
A doctor may order a breast ultrasound if a physical exam or mammogram reveals a breast abnormality, such as:
- a lump in your breast
- a tender or painful area in your breast
- a change in the texture or appearance of your nipple or breast skin
- unusual discharge from your nipple
If you have a lump in your breast, an ultrasound will help your doctor determine whether it’s a fluid-filled cyst or a solid tumor. It also allows them to determine the location and size of the lump.
Sometimes a breast ultrasound may be used instead of a mammogram to screen for breast cancer, including:
- in pregnant people and people under age 25 years, who shouldn’t be exposed to radiation from a mammogram
- in people who have dense breast tissue, which reduces the visibility of tumors in mammograms
- when a mammography machine isn’t available
A breast ultrasound may also be used to check for leaks or other problems with breast implants.
You don’t need to avoid eating or drinking before a breast ultrasound.
However, you’ll want to be mindful of what you wear:
- Avoid applying powders, lotions, or cosmetics to your breast before the ultrasound. These products may interfere with the accuracy of the test.
- Avoid wearing jewelry to your appointment or make sure that you can easily remove it if asked.
- Wear a top that you can easily remove during your ultrasound appointment. You’ll be asked to undress from the waist up.
A sonographer or doctor will conduct your breast ultrasound. A sonographer is a healthcare professional with ultrasound training.
The procedure is straightforward:
- First, the sonographer or doctor will ask you to undress from the waist up and lie on your back on an ultrasound table.
- They’ll apply a clear gel to your breast. This conductive gel helps the ultrasound waves travel through your skin.
- They’ll move the transducer, which is like a wand, over your breast. They may even use an ABUS machine with a larger transducer, which they’ll lower over your breast.
The transducer sends and receives high-frequency sound waves to create pictures of the inside of your breast. As the waves bounce off the internal structures of your breast, the transducer records changes in their pitch and direction.
This creates a real-time recording of the inside of your breast. The recording is displayed on a computer monitor.
If the sonographer or doctor finds something suspicious, they’ll take multiple pictures of the area.
The procedure may take up to 30 minutes. If the sonographer or doctor uses an ABUS machine, the procedure may take as little as 5 minutes to complete.
A radiologist will examine the images from your breast ultrasound and send the results to your primary care doctor, if you have one.
The images that a breast ultrasound produces are in black and white. Cysts, tumors, and growths will appear as dark areas on the scan.
However, a dark spot on your ultrasound doesn’t mean that you have breast cancer. Most breast lumps are benign, or noncancerous.
Several conditions can cause benign lumps in the breast, including:
- fibrocystic breast disease, in which hormonal changes cause the breasts to become lumpy and tender
- fibroadenoma, which is a benign tumor of the breast tissue
- intraductal papilloma, which is a benign tumor of the milk duct
- breast fat necrosis, which is a lump of damaged or dead tissue in the breast
When to expect your results
Breast ultrasound results are typically available within several days. In some cases, they may be available the same day.
How quickly you receive the results will depend on several factors, such as:
- whether you have symptoms of or a past history of breast cancer
- whether your radiologist needs to collect more information or compare the ultrasound images with past test results to interpret them
- the methods the ultrasound facility uses to process and deliver results
Your doctor will let you know when the results are available.
A breast ultrasound doesn’t pose any risks, and it has many benefits.
A breast ultrasound can help your doctor learn whether you:
- have a lump in your breast
- have a lump that’s a fluid-filled cyst or a solid tumor
- need additional tests to check for breast cancer
If you have breast cancer, early diagnosis and treatment will help improve your outlook. An ultrasound is often part of the diagnostic process.
Since it doesn’t require radiation, the ultrasound is the preferred method of breast examination for people who are pregnant.
In fact, the ultrasound waves used in this test are the same type of ultrasound waves that are used to monitor the development of a fetus.
If the results of an ultrasound exam are abnormal, your doctor may order an MRI. An MRI can create images of your breast with greater detail.
If your doctor finds a solid tumor in your breast, an ultrasound or MRI won’t tell them whether the tumor is malignant, or cancerous.
To learn if the tumor is cancerous, your doctor will perform a biopsy to remove a sample of breast tissue for testing.
They may use an ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy to collect the sample. During this procedure, they’ll use a breast ultrasound to guide them while removing a sample of tissue with a needle.
Then they’ll send the tissue to a laboratory for analysis.
You may feel nervous while waiting for the biopsy results, but it’s important to keep in mind that around 4 out of 5 breast biopsies are negative for cancer.
Speak with your doctor to learn more about your test results and next steps.
Your doctor may order a breast ultrasound to check for tumors or other abnormalities.
If they find a lump that looks like a tumor, they may order follow-up imaging tests and a biopsy to collect a sample of tissue for testing.
A biopsy will help your doctor learn whether the lump is cancerous. Most breast lumps are benign.
If you have a benign cyst or tumor in your breast, your doctor can help you weigh the benefits and risks of having it drained or removed.
If you have breast cancer, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments, depending on the specific stage and type of cancer:
- radiation therapy
- hormone therapy
- targeted therapy