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A general ultrasound exam is usually easy and fast, though knowing what happens during an appointment can help patients take the right preparation steps.

Ultrasound is a widely used imaging test doctors use across all medical fields. It can be used to diagnose and monitor health conditions and see how treatments work. Knowing more about what happens during a general ultrasound can help you prepare for this test and feel more relaxed about it.

Here's what happens during an ultrasound and how to contact Lompoc Valley Medical Center if you or a family member needs this test.

What Is a General Ultrasound?

General ultrasound is an imaging test that uses sound waves to create pictures of the insides of your body. Doctors can use ultrasound to see your organs, muscles, tissues, and other structures.

General ultrasound is safe and non-invasive. This test does not use radiation like X-ray tests.

Ultrasound is commonly used during pregnancy to monitor an unborn baby and ensure the mother is healthy. It can also check your heart, blood flow, and kidneys and see if growths like tumors are cancerous. Women's doctors use ultrasound a lot to conduct fertility treatments. It can also help them find causes of pelvic pain and abnormal menstrual bleeding.

You may need an ultrasound regularly if you are pregnant. You may also need one if you have symptoms affecting organs like the heart, kidneys, and gallbladder. According to the National Institutes of Health, an ultrasound may be used to do a biopsy. A biopsy is a medical test where a doctor takes a tissue sample from your body to check for diseases.

How Do I Prepare For a General Ultrasound?

A general ultrasound requires very little preparation or no preparation at all. The preparation steps you need to take will depend on the reason for your test.

If having a pregnancy ultrasound, your doctors may ask you to drink plenty of water before your exam. That is so your doctors can see your baby more clearly during the test. If having an ultrasound for gallbladder problems, your doctors may ask you to fast for 12 hours before your test. Fasting means not eating any food or drinking any beverages.

In some instances, your doctor may instruct you to remove all jewelry and change it into a medical gown.

Ask your doctor how you should prepare for your ultrasound before arriving at your appointment. Your doctor will give you all the necessary instructions, so there are no testing delays.

What Happens During An Ultrasound Procedure?

A general ultrasound procedure is usually effortless and straightforward.

First, your doctor will ask you to lie on a table and expose the area of your body examined. For example, if having a pregnancy ultrasound, your doctor may ask you to expose your belly area.

Next, your doctor will spread a water-based gel over your skin. This gel gets rid of air pockets between your skin and the transducer. Air pockets can prevent sound waves from passing into your body. The transducer is the wand-like device that performs the ultrasound.

Your doctor will then move the transducer over the area examined. Images of the inside of your body will show up on a monitor where you and your doctor can see them.

Your doctor will attach the transducer to a probe for some ultrasound tests. The probe is then inserted into your body to help doctors better view your insides. For example, the probe can be inserted into your esophagus to view your heart. Females may have the probe inserted into their vaginas so their doctors can view their ovaries or uterus.

An ultrasound can take anywhere between a few minutes to an hour to complete, based on the reason for the test. After the exam, your doctor will use a tissue or cloth to remove the gel from your body. Then, you can go home or resume your usual activities.

What Does a General Ultrasound Feel Like?

Most general ultrasound procedures are fast and painless. Your doctor may gently press the transducer into your skin, which could cause discomfort if that area is sore or tender. If asked to show up to your exam with a full bladder, you may feel discomfort until you can urinate.

If a probe is being used during your exam, you may feel discomfort when inserted into your body. Your doctors will try to make you feel as comfortable as possible if they use a probe.

In rare instances, young children who have an ultrasound may receive sedation. This can help them stay still for the procedure. If this is needed, your doctor will talk to you in more detail about what you and your child can expect during the test.

What Happens When the Ultrasound Is Over?

After your ultrasound is over, you can get dressed and go home or resume your activities.

If having an ultrasound to diagnose a health condition, your images may be sent to a radiologist. A radiologist is a doctor trained to interpret images taken during tests like ultrasounds and X-rays. After a radiologist reviews your images, they will send the results to your doctor. Your doctor will then call you or invite you back for a follow-up appointment to discuss your results.

If you were having an ultrasound for pregnancy, your doctor may discuss your baby's progress during the test or right after the test. For example, suppose you have an ultrasound to determine your baby's gender. In that case, your doctor may show you the baby's anatomy on the screen during the exam.

Is a General Ultrasound Safe?

A general ultrasound is safe and has no known risks, including for pregnant women. An ultrasound does not emit radiation and does not increase the risk for cancer.

There are many benefits to having a general ultrasound. It is a non-invasive test, which means it does not involve any needles, injections, or incisions. Therefore, an ultrasound requires no anesthesia or sedation unless sedation is needed to help a young child remain still for the test.

An ultrasound is not painful and does not cause side effects or symptoms. It is also widely available, relatively easy for doctors to use, and many health insurance plans cover it.

Compared with X-rays, ultrasound can often provide doctors with a clearer view of your soft tissues. It also provides real-time images, which can be especially fun for mothers who want to see their babies in action in the womb. Additionally, the real-time imaging produced by the ultrasound can be helpful for doctors who are using it to do a biopsy, especially if they are inserting a needle to extract a tissue sample.

What Are Alternatives To a General Ultrasound?

An ultrasound is one of several imaging tests your doctors may use to view the insides of your body. X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs are other commonly used imaging procedures.

An X-ray uses radiation technology to take images of your internal structures. X-ray is also non-invasive, painless, fast, and easy to perform, like ultrasound. It is usually used to view conditions affecting your bones and chest, like fractures and bone cancer. X-ray is safe, though it does emit a small amount of radiation. Having several X-ray tests over time may increase your risk of cancer.

CT stands for computerized tomography. A CT scan also uses X-ray technology but takes far more detailed images than those produced by standard X-rays. This test creates small slices of images that can be viewed individually so your doctors can take a closer look at small bones and tissues. Your doctors may use a CT scan to evaluate minor fractures in your feet or hands or to examine your blood vessels.

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. This test uses radiofrequency energy to create detailed images of your insides. An MRI is beneficial for looking at health problems that affect soft tissues and joints. It can often provide images far more detailed than the images created by an X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound. However, MRI appointments tend to last way longer than other imaging tests and require you to remain still for the entire exam.

If your doctors say an ultrasound test is the best imaging test for you, you should follow their recommendation to have this test. Compared with other imaging tests, ultrasound is safe and non-invasive and has no additional risks, like cancer. Don't hesitate to ask your doctor for more information about ultrasound.