What Is an Abdominal Ultrasound?

What to expect when undergoing this test

An abdominal ultrasound is a non-invasive way to see the organs inside the abdomen. An ultrasound can help find any changes in the organs (such as in their size or shape), tissues, or blood vessels, and may also show if there is an abnormal mass present, such as a tumor. By visualizing the structures inside the body, physicians can look and see if there is a reason behind any symptoms that a patient might be experiencing.

This test, which also might be called sonography, uses sound waves, so there’s no radiation involved and it can be used to look at the kidneys, liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas, spleen, and abdominal blood vessels. Sound waves are used to create a digital image of the abdominal organs, which can then be stored and shared with healthcare providers for analysis.

what to expect during an abdominal ultrasound
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Purpose of Test

A physician may order an abdominal ultrasound for a variety of reasons, such as if there are symptoms in the abdomen or if there is a concern about the abdominal organs. Some of the symptoms or conditions that might be a reason to undergo an abdominal ultrasound include abdominal aortic aneurysm, abdominal pain, altered liver function, bloating or distention, an enlarged organ, gallbladder disease, or kidney stones.

Because it gives a picture of the structures inside the abdomen, an ultrasound may also be used as a guiding tool for a procedure. The images created during an ultrasound are helpful in situations where a needle might need to be inserted into the abdomen to drain an abscess or a cyst.

Limitations

In most cases, ultrasound can give a good picture of the state of the organs and structures in the abdomen, but there are some limitations. Trapped air or gas can obstruct the view of some of the organs. The intestine may also get in the way of visualizing all the abdominal structures. Fat tissue in the abdomen can also prevent the sound waves from penetrating. If there’s a concern that one of these reasons may result in a less than a complete picture, another test may be ordered, such as a CT scan, an MRI, or a barium study.

Concurrent Tests

Another type of ultrasound test, called a Doppler ultrasound, may also be done at the same time. A Doppler ultrasound uses sound waves to determine the speed and direction of blood cells as they go through blood vessels. This can show if there are any abnormalities in the blood vessels in the abdomen.

Risks and Contraindications

In most instances, ultrasounds are non-invasive and painless. In addition, this test does not involve radiation or contrast dye and is considered safe. Even so, the United States Food and Drug Administration stresses that ultrasound should only be used for medical need.

Before the Test

The physician who ordered the ultrasound, or the radiology center or hospital where the test is being conducted, will provide instructions on how to prepare for the test. Patients may want to ask about eating/drinking prior to the ultrasound. If fasting is necessary, you may want to schedule the test in the morning. Patients should be able to drive themselves to and from this test because there is no sedation involved, but always double-check the instructions.

Timing

The time it takes for an abdominal ultrasound will vary based on the reason for the ultrasound and any preparation that’s necessary prior to the test. In some cases, if there’s no need to wait for any pre-test preparation, the ultrasound can be completed in about 30 minutes.

What to Wear

Comfortable, loose clothing will be the best choice for an ultrasound appointment. It may be necessary to remove some or all clothing, in order to have the abdomen bare for the test. Some facilities might ask patients to change out of their clothes and into a hospital gown. Any jewelry on the abdomen should be removed.

Food and Drink

In some cases (such as for an ultrasound of the aorta), patients may be asked to fast for 8 to 12 hours prior to the test. This is to avoid having too much gas in the intestines, because that may block the full visualization of some organs. For an ultrasound focused on the kidneys, it might be necessary to drink several glasses of water to ensure the bladder is full, about an hour or so prior to the test. A fat-free dinner followed by fasting overnight might be needed in the case of an ultrasound on the liver, gallbladder, spleen, or pancreas.

If fasting before an ultrasound, it is important to ask healthcare providers for instructions about taking any medications prior to the test. It may be necessary to change the timing of medications or it may be recommended that medications be taken with only a small sip of water. 

Cost and Health Insurance

The cost of an abdominal ultrasound varies widely based on region. Without insurance , it could cost between $200 and $1000, but there are no official guidelines on cost. In some cases, pre-authorization with the insurance company might be necessary before having an abdominal ultrasound. Patients should consult with their insurance carrier to understand more about costs and if a pre-authorization is needed.

What to Bring

An abdominal ultrasound will be done in one day and might not take a lot of time, so only something to do while waiting, such as a bringing a book to read, is needed. Items such as jewelry will be best left at home because it might be necessary to remove them prior to the test. If fasting prior to the test, bringing along something to eat and drink before driving home might be a good idea to avoid discomfort.

During the Test

This test will take place in a private exam room. It will be conducted by a radiologist or a sonographer. After you check in and fill out any necessary paperwork, you will be invited to the exam room.

Throughout the Test

For an abdominal ultrasound, patients will be asked to lie on their back on an examination table. The abdomen will need to be uncovered by moving clothing or the hospital gown. The radiologist will apply some gel to the part of the abdomen that needs to be imaged. Next , the radiologist will use a device called a transducer by putting it against the skin on the abdomen and moving it around to take the images.

An abdominal ultrasound should not be painful and most patients don’t experience any discomfort. In the case where there is already a tender area, however, moving the transducer over it may be uncomfortable. Letting the radiologist know about any problems with the skin or pain in the abdominal area will be helpful in avoiding further discomfort.

Post-Test

After the test, patients will be given a towel to wipe the gel off the abdomen and be shown to a private area to use the bathroom, if needed, and to get dressed. There's typically no special aftercare instructions and it's fine to go about normal daily activities. There are no side effects to manage.

If you'd like a copy of your results, you can ask the office where you have the test done. They can likely provide a CD with the images and a summary report when it's ready.

Interpreting Results

Depending on the facility and the reason for the test, some patients may be asked to wait after getting dressed in order to receive the results. A healthcare provider will go over the results and answer any questions.

However, more often, the results will be reviewed and sent to the physician who ordered the test. In a day or two, the physician’s office will get in touch to talk about the results of the ultrasound. Patients should follow-up with the doctor if a few days go by without hearing anything. 

Follow-Up

If there are any results from the abdominal ultrasound that need follow-up, the healthcare provider who ordered the test will make a recommendation. 

A follow-up could involve having another test or examination to understand more about what was discovered during the ultrasound. This could also mean being referred to a specialist physician or other healthcare providers for care, depending on the organs that are thought to be involved.

In some cases, watchful waiting might be necessary, which could mean repeating the ultrasound after a certain period of time to see if there are any changes. The healthcare providers who are explaining what the results mean should answer questions and offer a plan for the next steps needed.

Other Considerations

A healthcare provider should discuss the results of the test in as much detail as necessary for the patient to understand. If anything about the results is in question, getting a second opinion about what the ultrasound showed may be warranted (see if you can get a copy of the original images on a CD to share with other healtchcare professionals, if needed). Ultrasound results can either be sent to another physician or a patient can request the records and bring them to another provider for evaluation.

A Word From Verywell

Abdominal ultrasound is a non-invasive test that’s usually done fairly quickly and can give good information about what’s going on with the organs and structures inside the abdomen. Understanding the results of the scan and how to follow-up afterward are important. The healthcare professionals who requested the ultrasound and who are managing the follow-up should explain what’s happening at each step, but it’s also important for patients to ask questions when something isn’t clear.

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Article Sources
  • National Institutes of Health.“Ultrasound.” National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Jul 2016.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Ultrasound Imaging.” FDA.gov. 2 May 2018.