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Reasons to Have One, What to Expect, Associated Risks & More

Key Points

  • Ultrasounds are a versatile and non-invasive imaging technique with various medical applications, including monitoring fetal development, diagnosing cancer, and detecting gallbladder disease.
  • Doppler ultrasound specifically aids in examining blood flow, which is crucial for diagnosing heart and circulation issues such as blood clots, blocked arteries, and aneurysms.
  • Other uses of ultrasounds include checking the thyroid gland for nodules, identifying joint inflammation due to arthritis, and examining eyes for cataracts.
  • Despite their wide-ranging benefits, ultrasounds do carry some risks, including the potential to heat body tissues and create small gas pockets in fluids and tissues.
  • Due to these risks, ultrasounds should only be used when there is a genuine medical necessity.

7 Reasons You Would Need Ultrasound

1. Pregnancy

A pregnancy ultrasound allows doctors to monitor the growth and development of a fetus in its mother’s womb. Ultrasound also helps determine how far along a pregnancy is, whether there’s a problem with the baby or mother’s organs and whether a mother is carrying multiple babies. In the second and third trimester, an ultrasound can help determine the baby’s gender.[1]

2. View Cancer and Tumors

Ultrasound can give doctors a clear view of tumors and cancerous tissues in the body. This helps doctors arrive at a proper diagnosis and access the site of tumors more easily for biopsies and treatments. Ultrasound for cancer is most effective when used to view the breasts, genitals, and prostate, but may not be as useful as other imaging techniques for viewing the brain, lungs, and the entire pelvis or abdomen.[2]

3. Detect Gallbladder Disease

An abdominal ultrasound has been cited as the best diagnostic test for confirming gallbladder disease and is between 90 to 95% accurate in detecting gallstones.[3] This type of ultrasound allows doctors to find the cause of abdominal pain and swelling, and easily identify stones in both the gallbladder and kidney.[4]

4. Examine Blood Flow

Doppler ultrasound can show blood flowing through the blood vessels to help doctors identify and diagnose various heart and circulation problems.[5] Doppler ultrasound can detect blood clots, venous insufficiency, blocked arteries, valve defects, and aneurysms; in addition, it will also help estimate the speed at which blood is flowing.

5. Check Thyroid Gland

Ultrasound can be used to look for thyroid nodules or to help doctors to see them more clearly.[6] Thyroid nodules are lumps in the neck that may be benign or cancerous. Ultrasound of the thyroid can help doctors determine whether these lumps are likely to be cancerous.

6. View Joint Inflammation

Arthritis and other joint problems can cause symptoms of pain and inflammation. Ultrasound is used to help doctors identify which joints are causing these symptoms, and to help them guide needles into the joints and extract fluid contributing to joint problems.[7]

7. Examine Eyes and Cataracts

An eye and orbit ultrasound may be used to examine the eyes and measure their size and structures. Doctors may also use an eye ultrasound to examine behind or inside the eye and to determine the type of lens to implant during cataract surgery. Eye and orbit ultrasound can also diagnose tumors, retinal detachment, and other eye disorders.[8]

Understanding Ultrasound

Diagnostic ultrasound is a non-invasive imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of organs, tissues, and other structures within the body. Doctors use ultrasound to monitor a woman’s pregnancy and to diagnose and treat various medical conditions. Probes used in ultrasound can be placed either on the skin or inside the body to view blood vessels, the vagina, and the gastrointestinal tract.[9]

Ultrasound is best for monitoring the growth and development of fetuses, and for examining organs including the eyes, heart, breasts, skin, and muscles. Ultrasound is not effective for examining bones and tissues that contain air, such as the lungs. However, ultrasound may be able to image bones and lungs when they are partially or fully filled with fluid. The images produced by the ultrasound can now be displayed in 2D, 3D, or 4D.[9]

Risks of Ultrasound

Diagnostic ultrasound is generally safe and uses non-ionizing radiation, unlike X-rays and many other imaging systems.[5] However, ultrasound energy may still produce some biological effects on the body. For instance, the waves produced by the ultrasound can heat the body tissues and produce small pockets of gas in fluids and tissues. For this reason, organizations including the FDA and the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine suggest using ultrasound only when there is a true medical need and limiting the use of ultrasound during pregnancy.[9]

What to Expect with Ultrasound

Most types of ultrasound procedures do not require advance preparation. However, some ultrasound procedures performed on the abdomen and pelvis may require you to follow specific instructions surrounding when to consume foods and liquids prior to the appointment.[10]

Adults are generally advised not to eat or drink anything 8 hours before an abdominal ultrasound. Adults receiving a bladder ultrasound may be instructed to drink 32 ounces of water 1 hour before their appointments. Ultrasound for the prostate and rectum requires patients to cleanse with an enema beforehand, while ultrasound for the uterus requires that women refrain from having unprotected sexual intercourse during the first 10 days of their menstrual cycles.[10]

Ultrasound exams are generally painless and last between 30 and 60 minutes.[11] Doctors may ask that you remove all jewelry and clothing, change into a hospital gown, and lie down on an examination table. A gel is normally applied to the skin directly over the area being examined to prevent the formation of air pockets that can block the ultrasound waves. A doctor or ultrasound technician will then move a small handheld device across the skin to capture images of the inside of the body.

For ultrasounds performed inside the body, a probe is inserted into a natural opening in the body such as the vagina or rectum. An anesthetic may be used to reduce pain or discomfort for internal ultrasound exams. The doctor will share ultrasound results with you either during or after the exam.[11]

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Ultrasound

  • How should I prepare for my ultrasound?
  • Will my ultrasound be painful?
  • Will I need general or local anesthesia for the ultrasound?
  • Will the ultrasound allow you to properly diagnose my condition?
  • What risks are associated with my ultrasound procedure?
  • Will ultrasound harm my unborn baby in any way?
  • Will further testing be needed after my ultrasound?
  • Will the ultrasound reveal whether my baby growing at a healthy pace?
  • Will the ultrasound reveal whether I’m carrying multiple babies?
  • Will the ultrasound determine the gender of my baby?
  • Can an ultrasound tell you my baby’s date of conception?

Ultrasound May Also be Known as:

  • Sonography
  • Sonogram
  • Medical ultrasound
  • Diagnostic ultrasound
  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • Pelvis ultrasound
  • Diagnostic sonography
  • Ultrasonography
  • Pregnancy ultrasound
  • Obstetric ultrasound
  • Transrectal ultrasound
  • Transvaginal ultrasound
  • Doppler ultrasound


Frequently asked questions

  • What are some common uses of ultrasounds in medicine?

    Ultrasounds are frequently used to monitor fetal development during pregnancy, diagnose cancer, detect gallbladder disease, examine blood flow, check the thyroid gland for nodules, identify joint inflammation, and examine eyes for cataracts.
  • Are ultrasounds safe?

    While ultrasounds are generally safe and non-invasive, they do carry some risks, such as the potential to heat body tissues and create small gas pockets in fluids and tissues.
  • How effective are ultrasounds in detecting gallstones?

    Ultrasounds are very effective in detecting gallstones, with an accuracy rate of 90 to 95%.
  • What is Doppler ultrasound used for?

    Doppler ultrasound is used to examine blood flow, which helps in diagnosing heart and circulation problems such as blood clots, blocked arteries, valve defects, and aneurysms.
  • Can ultrasounds be used to diagnose arthritis?

    Yes, ultrasounds can be used to identify joint inflammation caused by arthritis.
  • Are ultrasounds used in cancer diagnosis?

    Yes, ultrasounds can provide a clear view of tumors and cancerous tissues, aiding doctors in diagnosing and treating cancer effectively.
  • Can ultrasounds detect cataracts in the eyes?

    Yes, ultrasounds can be used to examine the eyes for cataracts.
  • When should ultrasounds be used?

    Ultrasounds should only be used when there is a true medical need due to the potential risks they carry.

Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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