Breast Ultrasound for Abnormalities

Investigating suspicious areas

In This Article

A breast ultrasound examination uses medical ultrasonography (high-frequency sound waves) to get a look at abnormal structures and tissues inside the breast. It can be used as both a diagnostic or screening test.

Purpose of Test

An ultrasound is often performed to answer questions the doctor may have about something abnormal discovered on a mammogram. It may be useful if your mammogram shows an indistinct mass, or if a lump can be easily felt during a clinical breast exam

Breast ultrasound is the preferred imaging test in young women with dense breasts, as it provides a clearer image than mammogram on this type of breast tissue.

How It Works

An ultrasound transmits high-frequency sound waves through breast tissue from a hand-held unit called a transducer. These sound waves bounce off of breast tissues and create an "echo." The echo is recorded by a computer that makes an image of the breast tissue and displays it on a monitor.

Ultrasound imaging requires a skilled operator who can examine suspect areas of the breast by positioning the transducer in several locations, re-positioning the transducer and the patient in order to get the right images.

Ultrasound produces sharp, high-contrast images. In dense breast tissue, its images often allow a doctor to distinguish between a fluid-filled cyst and a solid mass. Mammograms don't make this distinction as accurately, though they are better than ultrasounds at detecting microcalcifications (which can be an early sign of breast cancer).

Often, breast abnormalities that are suspected of being cancerous after a mammogram can be identified as benign (non-cancerous) with a follow-up ultrasound examination. Benign breast abnormalities can include cysts and plugged milk ducts.

If your doctor sends you for an ultrasound, it doesn't necessarily mean that you have cancer—just that they need a clearer picture of your breast.

Breast structures that show up well on ultrasound include:


Ultrasounds can't do everything, though. Disadvantages of this imaging technique include:

  • Can't image areas deep inside the breast
  • Equipment can sometimes have problems
  • May have trouble distinguishing between abnormality and surrounding tissue
  • Cannot show microcalcifications


Some advantages of ultrasound are:

  • High-contrast images
  • Can image nonpalpable masses (lumps that you can't feel)
  • No compression, pain-free
  • No radiation
  • Less expensive than CAT scan or breast MRI

Other Uses for Breast Ultrasound

Ultrasound can also be used to guide a surgeon during a breast biopsy, so the most accurate tissue sample can be taken. Your surgeon can also use an ultrasound to guide the needle during aspiration of a cyst in order to remove fluid. Lymph nodes can be imaged by ultrasound because they make a characteristic image which distinguishes them from malignant tumors.

Whether an ultrasound is done for screening, diagnostics, or to clarify a lump found by another exam, the procedure is largely the same.

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