Ultrasound is a non-invasive procedure that uses sound waves, not radiation, to assess body structures. A technologist applies gel over the area of interest and presses an ultrasound transducer onto the skin. The transducer generates sound waves that bounce off body tissues, producing echoes that are then recorded by a computer to be used to make an image for the radiologist to examine called a sonogram.
What is an Ultrasound Exam?
Also known as diagnostic sonography, ultrasound imaging exams are used to create an image of internal structures such as muscles, tendons, joints, and other internal organs. This is done when sound waves are used with frequencies that are inaudible to humans to create images when the ultrasound pulses echo off internal organs.
Your ultrasound technologist may also be called a diagnostic sonographer. The difference between the terms is simple: ultrasound is the process of using equipment to take sonograms (images), while sonography is the use of these images for medical diagnostic purposes.
As a medical imaging patient, the human touch of your diagnostic sonographer can dramatically impact how you experience an ultrasound procedure. That is why Insight Medical Imaging travels across the country, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, to recruit the best diagnostic medical sonographers to perform our imaging exams.
Common Medical Ultrasound Imaging Procedures
While many other evaluations utilize ultrasound diagnostics, the most familiar form of ultrasounds is the obstetric ultrasound procedure for pregnant women.
Ultrasound is also commonly used to examine the:
What To Expect
- We may ask you to change into a gown or scrubs for easier access to the diagnostic area of interest. You will not be required to change if our technologist is able to rearrange your clothing to expose the ‘to be examined’ body part
- The technologist will apply a warm, hypoallergenic gel and move the transducer (probe) around with moderate pressure to obtain images
- This pressure should not cause any pain. Please inform your technologist of any discomfort
- The technologist may ask you to change positions throughout the exam so that they can obtain the best possible images for your doctor
- After we capture all necessary images, one of our radiologists will review the results and send a detailed report to your doctor. We try our best to send the report as soon as possible, usually within one business day
For more information on what to expect for your specific ultrasound exam, please visit our exam preparation page!
Ultrasounds as a Radiation-Free Alternative
Most forms of medical imaging lead to some level of radiation exposure, either through injection or external contact. General ultrasound imaging scans, on the other hand, differ because they use high-frequency sound waves to generate images that are then used for diagnosis.
As diagnostic ultrasounds are generally one of the safest methods of medical imaging, doctors will often refer patients to get ultrasounds if they are still able to reach a clear and conclusive diagnosis. To avoid exposing you to unnecessary radiation, your doctor can also refer you to take a magnetic resonance imaging exam (MRI)— which utilizes a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce images— as an alternative form of imaging.
If you may be or are currently pregnant, we ask that you be completely transparent with your doctor before scheduling an ultrasound as unnecessary radiation exposure during pregnancy or while breastfeeding can have a lifelong impact.
How Tissue Composition May Influence Your Ultrasound
- Sound waves cannot pass through hard, dense objects, such as bone or calcifications
- Gas in the gastrointestinal (GI) system and bowel is a strong sound-wave reflector that negatively impacts transmission and can create reverberation artifacts during imaging
- The deeper something is inside your body, the less likely ultrasound waves will penetrate the tissue with the same efficiency
How to Prepare
As there are many types of ultrasound procedures, the way you prepare will differ from one imaging to the next. For pelvic ultrasound exams and obstetric ultrasound exams, we instruct our patients to consume 32 oz. of water before the imaging procedure.
Generally, we ask all of our ultrasound imaging patients to drink four (8 oz.) glasses of water an hour before their ultrasound exam starts. We also ask that patients do not go to the washroom until the exam is over or until you have the go-ahead from your sonographer. We may also require patients to fast depending on the imaging exams that your doctor has requested.
Please consult with your doctor or ultrasound sonographer for more information on the preparation needed for your ultrasound procedure or see our Exam Preparation page.
Discomfort During Medical Exam Preparation
We understand it can be difficult and uncomfortable to fast or to drink a large volume of water without relief. That’s why we do our best to get you in on time for your exam and, if possible, perform parts of the exam that require a full bladder first.
If you are in an uncomfortable amount of pain from drinking water, tell our receptionists or sonographers. Sometimes you can release a little urine before your exam after consulting with our staff.
Other times, your sonographer will try to capture specific photos at the beginning of the appointment and then allow you to go to the washroom for a little relief before finishing the rest of the exam.
To avoid discomfort or pain from a full bladder, we recommend that you reference the below graphic for a timeline of how to prep for your exam. As discomfort can be due to drinking water too early or continuing to drink right up until your exam, we suggest that you drink all four (8oz) glasses of water in a 30-minute window.
This window should start 90 minutes before your appointment and will allow our staff to capture high-quality images during your procedure in a quick and efficient manner.
After your exam is complete, you may resume your normal activities and diet unless your doctor or sonography instructs you otherwise. For almost all ultrasound procedures, there are no after-effects or debilitating physical repercussions.
For obstetric ultrasound exams, we will be able to print or send digital photos to your cell phone or email for maximum convenience.
Please consult with your doctor once they have received a detailed report on the results of your ultrasound.
Internal Ultrasound Procedure
Certain ultrasound exams for women may require additional imaging in the form of an internal exam. These scans are performed transvaginally and give our radiologists more detailed images for diagnosis. Typically, we conduct internal ultrasounds on women who have a pelvic, renal, obstetric or combined abdomen/pelvic appointment.
For the comfort of our patients during this portion of the ultrasound exam, patients can request female sonographers at the time of booking. However, it is important to understand that we may not always be able to meet this request due to the volume of exams and staffing limitations.
Please be reassured that if a male sonographer is assigned to perform your ultrasound exam, a female colleague will be in the room with you to chaperon.
Benefits of Ultrasound Guidance Over Traditional Guidance
Ultrasound guidance offers the following benefits:
- Zero exposure to ionizing radiation
- Longer insertion window
- Improved needle placement accuracy
- Reduced risk of injury to neighbouring anatomy
- Real-time confirmation of procedural success
In addition, ultrasound imaging is highly useful for visualizing musculoskeletal anatomy and guiding interventional radiology procedures, such as biopsy, in real-time.
Insight Medical Imaging uses ultrasound guidance for many intervention procedures, such as core and aspiration biopsy and wire localization, as well as pain management injections. Click here to learn more about ultrasound-guided biopsy, including the preparation, how it is commonly performed, and more.
Providing Alberta with Ultrasounds At Our Medical Imaging Clinics
We have 12 locations in Alberta that offer ultrasound exams and other medical procedures. For your ultrasound examination needs, visit our locations at Castledowns, Heritage, Hermitage, Lendrum, Meadowlark Diagnostic, Millwoods, Oliver Square, West End, Leduc, Sherwood Park, Spruce Grove, or Fort McMurray.
Although there can be discomfort from consuming the necessary amount of water before your medical imaging ultrasound exam, ultrasound is a non-invasive and safe procedure.
At Insight Medical Imaging, our goal is to act as a catalyst for change, offer services and expertise not found elsewhere, and connect in a meaningful way. We pride ourselves on being a part of your journey and we take the time to create open communication and build relationships with our patients, physicians, and employees. In short, we strive to humanize the healthcare experience by listening, answering questions, and being there when needed.
Yes! We can print, send, or email you some of your ultrasound images at your request. Our radiologist will send your doctor a detailed report once your results have been examined.
We ask that you have a full bladder before a pelvic ultrasound so that the uterus is in a position to be more visible and so that the intestines and bowel are not restricting ultrasound imaging.
Although the length of the exam can vary depending on the complexity, the average time for an ultrasound is 30 minutes.
Since there are no after-effects from an ultrasound, you may resume your normal activities, diet, and medications unless instructed otherwise by the technologist or your doctor.
Before your sonographer begins the scan, they will apply a warm lubricating substance to the area of interest. This substance is known as ultrasound transmission gel.
During your imaging exam, the ultrasound probe is pushed against this gel to help capture medical images. The gel used is hypoallergenic, non-irritating, and non-sensitizing, so you are unlikely to have a reaction.
The way in which ultrasound transmission gel operates is by reducing the acoustic impedance and conducting the sound waves between the probe and your body. Ultimately, the ultrasound transmission gel creates a bridge between the probe and your tissue, allowing for clear transmission of medical images during your exam.
Some ultrasound exams require special preparation, such as drinking water before the procedure. While this may seem like an odd request, it is a very important detail to ensure your ultrasound procedure goes as well as possible. We instruct patients to drink and finish four (8oz) glasses of water before their ultrasound exam appointment, and not urinate. Drinking this amount of water forces your urinary bladder to expand, pressing the uterus up and moving other organs, such as the bowel, out of the way.
If you do not drink the correct amount of water or you urinate before the ultrasound scan, your bladder will shrink and contract, making it difficult to examine the walls. The water inside your expanded bladder also allows the high-frequency sound waves to penetrate deeper into your abdomen, beyond the rigid, bony pelvic structure. Essentially, the water moves your internal organs into a better position and provides a clear window for higher-quality ultrasound imaging.
Other ultrasound exams require that you fast (do not eat) for a certain period before your scan. Fasting ensures there is no digesting matter inside your stomach at the time of your scan. Digesting food in your stomach is dense, so sound waves have a harder time penetrating and creating a clear image.
Talk to your diagnostic sonographer or physician for more information about preparing for your ultrasound procedure.
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