Ultrasound is commonly used as an initial diagnostic tool for a wide variety of conditions. As an imaging test, it can help health professionals see abnormal structures or injuries inside your body. But in some cases, not even imaging can detect some diseases.

While ultrasound may sometimes be used as an initial screening or diagnostic tool for gynecological problems, ovarian cancer might not always be found with this technology. Find out why and what you can do if you’re at risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Currently, there are no regular screenings recommended for the detection of ovarian cancer. Imaging studies like ultrasound, plus various blood tests, may be used to help diagnose people who have a high risk of developing ovarian cancer, but no routine screenings are suggested.

In most cases, a health professional who oversees your gynecological care will have your family and personal medical history on file. Often, this will include an assessment of your risk of developing certain cancers.

If you’re determined to be at high risk of developing pelvic cancers like ovarian cancer, your health professional may choose to perform occasional tests, or you may request these tests if you’re experiencing any abnormal pains or concerning symptoms.

Ultrasound is just one technology that may be used to investigate symptoms more closely, although a physical pelvic examination is probably the first step.

If your medical professional needs more information or wants a close look at the tissues in your ovaries, an ultrasound — usually a transvaginal ultrasound — may be used. While transvaginal ultrasounds can show a better picture of the pelvis than other types of ultrasounds, ultrasound technology itself can be limited.

Will an ultrasound catch my cancer?

Transvaginal ultrasounds may be used to initially investigate symptoms, but they’re only about 75 percent effective in detecting ovarian cancer.

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With ultrasounds, images are created through readings from sound waves that bounce back from the tissues they come into contact with. This can be useful for taking measurements, but doesn’t provide a very accurate visual.

Ultrasounds can also show your medical professional if there’s an abnormal shape or measurement inside your ovaries, but it isn’t useful in providing more information.

To learn what an abnormal area is made up of, or what’s caused it, advanced imaging like a CT scan or MRI is required. A biopsy may even be necessary.

Even when transvaginal ultrasounds identify tumors in your ovaries, they really can’t provide information as to whether the tumor is cancerous or not.

There are many reasons you could be experiencing pelvic pain. It can be difficult to differentiate what part of your body is causing your discomfort, since there are a lot of structures in your pelvic space.

Ovarian pain is typically dull and consistent, or fleeting and sharp. As far as location, pain is usually felt below the belly button, and may feel as though it’s located on one side or the other.

Normal ovaries only measure 2.5 to 5 centimeters, so don’t be surprised if it’s difficult to zero in on the location of your pain.

While ovary pain is uncomfortable, it’s not all that uncommon. Aside from ovarian cancer, there are a number of conditions that can cause ovarian pain, including:

If you’re experiencing abdominal pain that’s unusual for you or that you’re concerned about, make sure you schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional.

Cysts are a common culprit when it comes to ovarian pain. Ovarian cysts are tiny sacs that can form in the ovaries.

These cysts are generally harmless and usually go away on their own. They usually contain bits of tissue, hair, fats, or other fluids that are eventually absorbed back into the body.

Ovarian cysts can be diagnosed with a pelvic exam or ultrasound in most cases. But a CT scan or MRI may be ordered in more complicated cases where twisting or rupture of the cyst is a concern.

Ovarian cancer is sometimes referred to as a “silent disease” because there are few noticeable early symptoms. Only about 16 percent of ovarian cancer diagnoses are made before the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Survival rates for ovarian cancer depend on how early the disease is diagnosed, and whether or not cancer has spread by the time it’s diagnosed and treatment begins.

Early diagnosis is key

It’s estimated that if 75 percent of ovarian cancer cases were caught in the early stages — stages 1 or 2 — deaths could be cut in half. Currently, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women.

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When it comes to diagnosing ovarian pain, your healthcare professional will want to know about other symptoms you may be having. Some symptoms of ovarian cancer beyond ovarian pain include:

If you have any of these symptoms, or they last for more than 2 weeks, you should schedule an appointment with your gynecologist or primary care doctor.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer

The most effective way to detect ovarian cancer is to have a good understanding of your individual risk. Risk factors for developing ovarian cancer include:

  • a history of ovarian, breast, fallopian tube, or colorectal cancers in your family
  • a personal history of breast cancer
  • use of fertility drugs
  • never having been pregnant
  • age over 40
  • ethnicity — non-Hispanic white women are at greatest risk, followed by Hispanic and then Black women
  • having obesity, with a BMI of 30 or above
  • hormone replacement therapy

Be sure to talk with a health professional about symptoms to watch for and prevention strategies if you have one or more of these risk factors.

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Sometimes, you can take all the right steps when it comes to your preventive health, and things still get missed.

If you feel like your concerns aren’t being addressed or your questions aren’t being answered by your healthcare professional, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion.

You are your own best advocate for your health, and only you know if something feels out-of-the-ordinary. Most healthcare professionals support getting a second opinion, and it could be a red flag if yours tries to deter you from seeking one.

You should seek a second opinion if you:

  • are uncomfortable with your healthcare professional
  • your healthcare professional failed to investigate your concerns
  • are concerned about the accuracy of your testing or diagnosis

You can request a second opinion from the same healthcare system, or seek out someone from another institution. If you’re requesting specific tests, like an ultrasound, that your health professional doesn’t think is necessary, you have the right to ask someone else to perform the test.

Things to consider

If you decide to move ahead with a second opinion, call your insurance provider to make sure this consultation would be covered. You may also want to bring copies of reports, tests, and other medical records for the second healthcare professional to review.

Just be aware — if a healthcare professional doesn’t think a test is medically necessary, or the risks of a test outweigh the benefits, you may have a hard time getting your health plan to cover the cost of the test. If that’s the case, you can request to pay for the cost of the test on your own.

Even diagnostic tests aren’t covered by every health plan. Be sure you know what your plan covers before you have testing done to avoid unexpected costs.

Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect because it often develops without early symptoms. There are no routine screenings recommended for ovarian cancer, and ultrasound is just one tool that can be used to diagnose it.

If you’re at a high risk of developing ovarian cancer, or have symptoms like ovarian pain that are concerning you, schedule an appointment with a health professional — and don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion.