What Can Abdominal Ultrasound Detect?
Abdominal ultrasound helps radiologists assess the health of the organs in the abdomen and can detect various issues and conditions, including:
- Liver cysts
- Liver hemangiomas
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm
- Kidney masses
- Pancreatic masses
- Kidney stones
- Gallbladder stones
- Spleen calcifications
- Fatty liver
Radiologists use ultrasound to examine various masses that can occur on abdominal organs. Most masses of the liver are benign. The most common liver mass is a vascular tangle called a hemangioma. The kidney may contain benign masses like angiomyolipomas or renal cell carcinoma (RCC). The pancreas may harbor small, subtle masses which are difficult to detect clinically. Pancreatic masses may occur in the pancreatic head, where the lesions may produce symptoms, or in the tail, which rarely produces symptoms until later.
What to Expect During an Abdominal Ultrasound
Abdominal ultrasound helps us examine the health of many abdominal organs, allowing us to evaluate potential issues and assess if further testing or treatment is recommended.
Prepare for your abdominal ultrasound by doing the following:
- Avoid drinking coffee in the morning, besides a few sips without cream or sugar.
- Avoid eating 4-6 hours before the abdominal ultrasound
- If you need to take any medications in the morning, you can take them with water, as water consumption will not interfere with the ultrasound study.
When your symptoms are vague and cannot be easily localized, your clinician may order both an abdominal and a pelvic ultrasound. In this case, try to schedule the appointment first thing in the morning.
To look at the abdominal organs, the ultrasound technologist uses a handheld transducer called a probe to capture images. Ultrasound gel is used with the transducer to create air-free contact with your skin, as ultrasound travels better through water-based solutions. You will feel gentle pressure while the technologist performs your imaging to eliminate the air gap.
The ultrasound gel also allows the technologist to efficiently move across the entire abdomen to perform the scan and document the images of the study. The wand is gently curved so the technologist can angle the probe at various angles.
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Kelly McAleese, M.D.
Timothy Colt, M.D.
Barbara Jaegar, M.D.
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Frequently Asked Questions About Abdominal Ultrasounds
An Ultrasound of the abdomen may be ordered by your physician to get a detailed look at the abdominal organs, including the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, kidneys, and spleen. Although some gas-filled organs, including the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine, are considered part of the abdomen anatomically, Abdominal Ultrasound is not optimal to evaluate these organs. The vascular system is not functionally related to the abdominal organs; however, the abdominal aorta passes through the abdomen and is evaluated in Abdominal Ultrasound Imaging.
Ultrasound is ideal for obtaining images of fluid-filled organs. The gallbladder is the only purely fluid-filled organ in the abdomen. Your clinician will frequently order an abdominal ultrasound to get more information on the abdomen's solid organs, including the liver, kidneys, pancreas, and spleen. Some abdominal organs, such as the stomach and small and large bowels, are gas-filled, meaning an ultrasound will not be optimal to evaluate these organs.
Your clinician may only want to evaluate a single functional system within the intra-abdominal cavity. If you have frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs) or pelvic floor problems, an ultrasound may be limited to the urogenital system, called a renal or kidney and bladder ultrasound. The imaging evaluates the kidneys for masses, calcifications, or ureter obstruction called hydronephrosis.
The bladder is also evaluated, so it needs to be full at the start of the study. Your technologist may scan you first with a filled bladder, then ask you to empty your bladder and scan again. This quantitative evaluation of the bladder before and after emptying your bladder is called a Post Void Residual.
Ultrasound is the first-line imaging scan for detecting a focal enlargement of the abdominal aorta called an aneurysm. Calcification of the abdominal aorta can also be identified as a sign of atherosclerosis.
When a LFT is abnormal, an ultrasound can determine if the liver is inflamed or contains masses. Liver function tests are very sensitive to alcohol use and medications since the liver's primary function is to detoxify. The ultrasound imaging looks different for an enlarged, inflamed liver called hepatitis versus a shrunken liver with long-standing liver disease like cirrhosis.