Breast ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to image internal tissues and structures of the breast. In contrast to mammography, this non-invasive procedure uses zero radiation and is safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Breast ultrasound is the most accessible exam of choice for any patients with dense breast tissue, under the age of 35, or are pregnant.
This exam is often requested as an adjunctive test, complementing mammography images, so our radiologist has all the necessary information to form a conclusion. There are other indicators for breast ultrasound. Do not be alarmed if we ask to perform a breast ultrasound following or instead of a screening mammogram; often we are examining nearby lymph nodes, fluid-filled lumps (cysts), or characterizing lesions seen on the mammogram.
Common Uses for Breast Ultrasound:
Diagnosing Breast Abnormalities
Breast ultrasound is conventionally used to investigate lumps found through self-examination, physical examination, screening mammogram, or even breast MRI. This exam helps our radiologist identify and assess the characteristics of your lesion (solid, fluid-filled, malignant, or benign) and determine the best course of action. Additionally, this exam can help explain abnormalities such as unusual nipple discharge, inflammation, breast pain, or discolouration.
Mammography is one of the best screening methods available for early detection. Unfortunately, human physiology makes some abnormalities and lesions more difficult to detect or interpret through mammography. In particular, dense breasts with a significant amount of glandular and connective tissue can disguise potential concerns. For this reason, we may perform supplementary imaging using breast ultrasound or MRI.
Although MRI provides a higher level of detail than conventional ultrasound, it might not be available or needed in all cases. Our radiologist will work with your doctor to decide the best course of action.
Ultrasound-guided Breast Biopsy
Sometimes breast ultrasound is used to precisely identify a location for biopsy. Since ultrasound provides images in real-time, our radiologist can use this form of imaging to plan and execute the procedure.
Risks of Breast Ultrasound:
This procedure does not use radiation; therefore, it poses no direct threat to pregnant women. While different health conditions may predispose you to certain risks, the primary risk in breast ultrasound is that imaging may not show extremely tiny lesions and will not identify tiny calcifications often associated with node negative precancers.
Obese patients, or those with abnormally large breasts are at higher risk for misdiagnosis, as there is a negative correlation between body mass or size of breasts and ultrasound accuracy. Therefore, it is highly likely for your doctor to refer you for screening mammography before an ultrasound, for better lesion localization accuracy.
Diagnostic Breast and Axilla Ultrasound Exam
Diagnostic breast and axilla ultrasounds produce images show abnormalities within the breast and armpit (axilla).
More specifically, this form of imaging examines the concentration of lymph nodes in your armpit, looking for irregularities and helping identify abnormal axillary sentinel lymph nodes.
Lymph node status is critical when evaluating medical or surgical therapies. Since your axilla has the largest concentration of lymph nodes in the body, symptoms are more likely to appear in your armpit first.
What Happens During my Breast and Axilla Ultrasound?
- You will be asked to change into a gown, removing your clothing from the waist up.
- You will need to expose your breast for the exam so the sonographer can scan it in its entirety, along with surrounding tissue and the axilla (armpit).
- A warm, hypoallergenic ultrasound gel will be applied to the area being scanned. The sonographer will glide a probe over your breast and the surrounding area to provide the radiologist with a complete set of images.
- Insight Medical Imaging only uses female sonographers for breast and axilla ultrasounds, so our patients are more comfortable when their breast is exposed.
- The sonographer will apply moderate pressure with the probe, which may be momentarily uncomfortable, but it should not cause any pain.
- After the sonographer has captured the images, you are free to leave.
- The results will be analyzed by one of our radiologists and a detailed report will be sent to your doctor. We try our best to send the results as soon as possible, usually within one business day.
If you have an Alberta Health Care card or valid healthcare card from out of province, there is no cost for a breast and axilla ultrasound (except Quebec).
Diagnostic breast and axilla ultrasound exams typically take 30 minutes per side. Sometimes our team will scan both sides. In this case, the exam may take longer than 30 minutes.
Being prepared for your breast ultrasound helps us take the best possible images for diagnosis. Please visit our exam prep page for more instructions specific to breast and axilla ultrasound.