What Is an Abdominal Ultrasound?

What to expect when undergoing this test

An abdominal ultrasound (or sonography) is a non-invasive way to see the organs in the abdominal cavity. Unlike other types of medical imaging tests, ultrasounds don't use ionizing radiation. Instead, they use sound waves to create digital images of the abdominal organs, which can then be stored and shared with other doctors.

Ultrasounds can detect changes (such as size or shape) in organs, tissues, or blood vessels, and may also show if there is an abnormal mass present, such as a tumor.

The kidneys, liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas, spleen, and abdominal blood vessels can all be seen with an abdominal ultrasound. Doctors can use ultrasounds to get a better look at these structures and see if something is happening that could explain a person's symptoms.

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

Purpose of Test

Doctors order abdominal ultrasounds for a variety of reasons, though most often to investigate abdominal symptoms or concerns about organs in the abdominal cavity.

Symptoms or conditions that may require an abdominal ultrasound include:

Ultrasounds can also help guide another procedure, as it provides a picture of the structures inside the abdomen. For example, an ultrasound can be helpful when inserting a needle into the abdomen to drain an abscess or a cyst.

Limitations

In most cases, ultrasounds provide a good picture of the organs and structures in the abdomen. However, the test does have some limitations:

  • Trapped air or gas can obstruct the view of some organs
  • Abdominal fat tissue can prevent sound waves from penetrating
  • The intestines may get in the way and prevent clear visualization of abdominal structures

If there’s a concern that such interference will result in an incomplete picture, a doctor might order a different test, such as a CT scan, an MRI, or a barium study.

Concurrent Tests

Another type of test called a Doppler ultrasound can be done at the same time as an abdominal ultrasound.

Doppler ultrasounds use sound waves to determine the speed and direction of blood cells as they travel through blood vessels. This movement can reveal abnormalities in the blood vessels of the abdomen.

Risks and Contraindications

According to the American College of Radiology, ultrasounds do not have any specific contraindications.

The test is generally non-invasive, painless, and safe for most people. Unlike other types of medical imaging, ultrasounds do not use ionizing radiation or contrast dye.

The American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) advises doctors and other healthcare providers to only use ultrasounds when there is a medical need.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises patients to talk with their doctor about why the test is necessary as well as go over the risks and benefits of having an ultrasound.

A doctor might decide against doing an ultrasound if further injury or infection could occur, such as if someone has open wounds on their abdomen.

Before the Test

The doctor who ordered the ultrasound or the radiology center or hospital where you'll have the test will provide instructions on how to prepare.

You 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.

You should be able to drive yourself to and from the test, as ultrasounds usually do not require any kind of sedation. Still, always double-check the instructions given to you by your doctor or the hospital.

Timing

The time it takes for an abdominal ultrasound will vary based on the reason for the test and any preparation that’s necessary beforehand.

If there’s no need to wait for any pre-test preparation, an ultrasound can often be completed in about 30 minutes.

What to Wear

Comfortable, loose clothing that's easy to take off and put on is the best choice for an ultrasound appointment.

Your abdomen needs to be bare for the test, so you may need to remove some or all of your clothes. You may be asked to change into a hospital gown when you arrive.

Any jewelry on the abdomen, such as a belly ring, will need to be removed and put somewhere safe until the test is over.

Food and Drink

In some cases (such as for an ultrasound of the aorta), you may be asked to fast for 8 to 12 hours before the test. This helps avoid too much gas in the intestines, which can block the full visualization of some organs.

For an ultrasound of your kidneys, you might be asked to drink several glasses of water an hour or so before the test to ensure your bladder is full.

A fat-free dinner followed by fasting overnight might be needed if you're having an ultrasound of your liver, gallbladder, spleen, or pancreas.

If you take daily medications, talk to your doctor before fasting for an ultrasound test. You might have to take your normal dose at a different time or be allowed to take them as usual with only a small sip of water.

Cost and Health Insurance

There are no official guidelines for pricing, so the cost of an abdominal ultrasound can vary widely. Factors like the type of ultrasound you're having, where you are having it done, and whether you have health insurance will determine how much you will pay.

You can call the medical facilities, radiology centers, or clinics in your area and ask for an estimate of how much an abdominal ultrasound will cost.

If you have health insurance, you may not have to pay the full amount. To ensure the cost is covered, your health insurance provider might need to pre-authorize an abdominal ultrasound.

If you have health insurance, contact your insurance carrier before scheduling the test to ask about the price and find out if prior authorization is necessary.

What to Bring

An abdominal ultrasound is done in one day and usually doesn't take very long once you get checked in. You may choose to bring a book or magazine to read while you wait, but nothing specific is needed.

Valuables and items such as jewelry are best left at home, as you might be asked to remove them before the test and they could get lost. 

If you'll have to fast prior to the test, you may want to bring a drink and snack to have when you're ready to head home.

During the Test

The ultrasound test will be performed by a radiologist or a sonographer. After you are checked in and have filled out any paperwork, you will be invited into a private exam room where the test will take place.

Throughout the Test

For an abdominal ultrasound, you will be asked to get onto an examination table and lie on your back. Then, any clothing or your hospital gown will be moved aside so your abdomen is uncovered.

The radiologist or sonographer will apply some gel to the part of the abdomen that needs to be imaged. The gel might feel chilly on your skin but many clinics and hospitals use warmers to keep the gel at a comfortable temperature.

Next, a device called a transducer will be placed against the surface of your belly and moved around. The transducer works with a computer to capture images.

An abdominal ultrasound should not be painful and most patients don’t experience any discomfort. However, if you have tenderness it may be uncomfortable when the transducer is moved over that part of your belly.

Let the radiologist or sonographer know before the ultrasound begins if you have any pain or issues with the skin of your abdomen.

Post-Test

After the test, you'll be given a towel to wipe the gel off your belly. Then, you'll be shown to a private area to get dressed and use the bathroom if you need to.

Ultrasounds don't have any special aftercare instructions. There are no side effects and you should be fine to return to your normal daily activities or go back to work.

If you'd like a copy of the test results, ask the office before you leave or give them a call when you get home. You may need to sign a release and possibly pay a fee, but most hospitals, clinics, and offices can supply a CD or thumb drive with the images and a summary report from the radiologist once they are complete.

Interpreting Results

Depending on the facility and the reason for the test, you may be asked to get dressed and wait for a healthcare provider to go over the results with you and answer any questions you have.

In most cases, the results will be reviewed first by the radiologist, then sent to the physician who ordered the test. After your doctor reviews the report, the office will usually contact you within a few days to discuss the results. They may also send you a letter in the mail or a message via a patient portal.

If you haven't heard from your doctor within a week, give their office a call.

Follow-Up

If there are any results from the abdominal ultrasound that need follow-up, the doctor who ordered the test will provide recommendations.

Follow-up could involve having another test or examination to understand more about what was discovered during the ultrasound. You may also be referred to a specialist physician or another healthcare provider for care, depending on which organs are involved.

Your doctor may recommend "watchful waiting." In this case, you might be asked to repeat the ultrasound in a few weeks or months to see if any changes occur.

The healthcare provider who is explaining what the results mean should also answer your questions and offer a plan for the next steps if needed.

Other Considerations

Your doctor should discuss the results of the test in as much detail as needed for you to understand.

If the images, interpretation, or results of the ultrasound are in question, getting a second opinion might be warranted. You can ask for the results of the ultrasound to be sent to another physician or request a copy to take with you when you go to an appointment.

A Word From Verywell

An abdominal ultrasound is a non-invasive test that can be performed quickly and painlessly. It provides useful information about the state of the abdominal organs.

In most cases, the test itself takes less than a day—often less than an hour. An abdominal ultrasound usually requires only minimal preparation (such as fasting the night before or having a full bladder when you arrive).

You don't need to bring anything and it's best to leave jewelry and other valuables at home. Ultrasounds don't have side effects or special aftercare instructions.

However, what happens after the test when you discuss the results with your doctor is important. You should feel confident that you understand what the results mean and what follow-up is needed.

The doctor who requested the ultrasound and will be making recommendations based on the results should explain what’s happening at each step, but if something about the test or results isn't clear, don't be afraid to speak up and ask questions.

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Article Sources

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