What Is a Breast Ultrasound?

What to expect when undergoing this exam

A breast ultrasound exam, sometimes called a sonogram, uses sound waves to create an image of the inside of your breast. It can be used as a screening procedure to check breast health or to aid in the diagnostic process, such as for breast cancer. It's frequently performed after a mammogram or clinical exam finds an area of concern in the breast.

breast ultrasound
Verywell / JR Bee

Purpose of Test

Women start out with dense breast tissue, which then naturally becomes fattier with age. Mammograms have a hard time imaging dense tissue, so an ultrasound may be ordered to get a clearer image. Most often, though, they're ordered because a problem is suspected.

Ultrasound isn't routinely used for checking breast health because it doesn't catch small lumps or tumors as effectively as mammography. Additionally, ultrasounds are less accurate in women who are obese or have especially large breasts.

Risks and Contraindications

Breast ultrasound is believed to be risk-free. Because the exam uses high-frequency sound waves, it doesn't expose you to radiation, as some other scans do.

That makes ultrasound the preferred form of breast screening for women with breast implants and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Breast ultrasound is not believed to pose any risks to either mother or baby during pregnancy.

Before the Test

You shouldn't need to do anything to prepare for a breast ultrasound. If you're given an appointment time, plan to arrive at the facility a few minutes early to get checked in. If you're dropping in, you may want to call ahead to ask about wait times.

Timing

Breast ultrasound typically takes between about 15 to 30 minutes.

Location

Some doctors' offices have ultrasound equipment on premises. Others may send you to a hospital or other medical facility for the exam.

What to Wear

You'll need to remove all the clothing above your waist, so it helps to wear a top that's easy to remove. You'll be lying down so a skirt may be awkward. Skipping a necklace is a good idea, as well, since you'll have to take it off.

Food and Drink

You should be able to eat and drink normally before and after the exam. Be sure you use the bathroom before the exam, and don't go in so full that you'll be uncomfortable lying on your back.

Cost and Health Insurance

Costs of a breast ultrasound can vary considerably. The range is about $100 to as much as $800, but the typical rate is closer to $250. Shopping around may save you a lot of money.

Health insurance is less likely to cover breast ultrasound than mammography. Ahead of time, check what costs you may face.

What to Bring

Bring a list of the most recent mammograms that you’ve had done. If applicable, write down the types of breast surgery, treatments, or biopsies you've had and when you had them. You may need these to complete any paperwork before the appointment. Bring your medical insurance card with you, too.

Other Considerations

If you have back pain that makes it difficult for you to lie on your back, let the tech know. They may be able to help you find the best position for minimizing pain.

During the Test

The ultrasound procedure is pretty simple and straightforward. The ultrasound operator will walk you through it.

Pre-Test

You will be asked to remove your clothing from the waist up and put on a gown that opens in the front. Then you'll be taken into the exam room, where you'll lie on a table. You may need a pillow under your head and shoulders, or a wedge pillow under your back, to get yourself into the proper position for the exam. If you're not comfortable, say so.

Throughout the Test

The ultrasound equipment looks like a computer workstation, with an eye-level monitor and wands of various shapes (transducers) that are suited to different kinds of ultrasound exams. The room will be dimly lit so that the ultrasound operator can clearly see images of your breast on the monitor.

A clear gel will be put on your skin near the area that will be imaged. The gel will help the transducer glide smoothly and make good contact with your skin. You may be asked to raise either arm above your head, as you would during a clinical breast exam.

The operator will place the transducer over the area to be examined. While pressing firmly, they'll slide the transducer back and forth and watch the images created on the monitor. They'll capture still images and may mark the images with measurements for the radiologist.

Very little pressure is used and the exam is usually painless. It may take 10 to 30 minutes to complete. Once it's over, you can wipe off the gel and get dressed.

You may be asked to wait while a radiologist looks at the ultrasound, just in case they want to do another image of an area they couldn't see or capture clearly the first time.

Post-Test

You can ask to see the image, but don’t ask the tech for a diagnosis. They aren't allowed to discuss their opinions with you.

You shouldn't have any lingering effects from the exam and will be able to head home as soon as you are dressed.

After the Test

Either your radiologist will talk to you about your results or your doctor will contact you with them. If you're nervous about it, ask ahead of time when you can expect to hear so you're mentally prepared for the wait (or lack thereof.)

You can ask your doctor for a copy of the ultrasound report for your medical records.

Interpreting Results

If your ultrasound finds or clarifies something suspicious, you may be told there's a mass or lump, and you may be told how big it is.

Follow-Up

Typically, more tests will be required for a firm diagnosis of a breast abnormality. If your ultrasound does find something, ask your doctor about the next step.

A Word From Verywell

A suspicious spot on an ultrasound can be caused by many things other than breast cancer. Try not to jump to conclusions, as even your doctor won't likely be able to say exactly what's going on at this stage. If you do have concerns, be sure to talk to your doctor about them.

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