Diagnostic Ultrasound of the Abdomen

What Is an Abdominal Ultrasound?

Ultrasound is the use of high-frequency sound waves to produce images. In many cases, this allows doctors to examine inside the body without surgery. If a Doppler ultrasound is done, the doctor is able to see blood flow in major blood vessels.

Parts of the Body Involved

An abdominal ultrasound can examine the following:

  • Abdomen
  • Liver
  • Spleen
  • Pancreas
  • Gallbladder
  • Kidneys
  • Ovaries and uterus (including a pregnant uterus and the fetus inside)
  • Aorta and other abdominal arteries (via Doppler ultrasound)

Why Does My Child Need an Abdomen Ultrasound?

An abdominal ultrasound produces real-time images of soft tissue and can capture movement of internal organs. Therefore, it is used to visualize and diagnose problems inside the abdominal cavity. If your child is being evaluated for a transplant, he or she may have an abdominal ultrasound. 

How Can an Abdominal Ultrasound Screen for Liver Disease?

A diagnostic ultrasound is most often performed for the following reasons:

  • To diagnose an injury or disease of the liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, or other organs inside the abdomen
  • To help determine the cause of abdominal pain
  • To identify gallbladder or kidney stones
  • To assess for tumors, cysts, abscesses, or other masses in the abdomen
  • To help determine why an internal organ is enlarged
  • To examine a pregnant uterus and the fetus within
  • To evaluate the aorta for the presence of an aneurysm
  • To evaluate narrowing of the arteries in the abdomen
  • To assess a spleen injury
  • To evaluate liver disease or pancreatitis
  • To locate a foreign object in the abdomen, such as a bullet

Is There Anything that Might Make It More Difficult to Get Results?

  • Both obesity and dehydration can make it more difficult to identify organs during the test.
  • Air in the intestine may block views of the internal organs.
  • The presence of barium or other contrast materials in the intestine can block views of the internal organs. This is why abdominal ultrasound are normally done before other diagnostic imaging tests that require contrast material.

Abdominal Ultrasound Procedure: What to Expect

Preparing for an abdominal ultrasound

Your child's doctor will likely perform a physical exam. Sometimes, blood tests and other tests may be needed.

When making the appointment, ask about dietary instructions. You may be asked to have your child fast for eight to twelve hours before the test to decrease the amount of gas in his or her intestine. For some types of pediatric ultrasound, a full bladder helps visualization. In these cases, your child will be asked to drink six or more glasses of water, and not to urinate before the scan.

Your child should wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing.

During an abdominal ultrasound procedure 

Your child will lie on a flat table in a darkened room. Younger children may want a parent beside them. The darkness of the room helps the technician see images on the screen.

A technician will apply gel to your child's chest. The gel helps transmit sound waves between the skin and the transducer, because these waves cannot travel through air. The technician then presses a small, hand-held device called a transducer (a tool that converts energy from one form to another) against the skin where the gel has been applied.

The transducer sends high-frequency sound waves toward the internal organs, which reflect the sound waves back to the skin. The transducer receives these sound waves and converts them into electrical impulses that become a visible image on the machine.

The technician watches the images as they appear on the machine's screen. The technician can capture a still image or videotape moving images for review at a later time. To obtain clearer and more complete images, the technician may move the transducer to different places on the abdomen. Your child may be asked to change positions or hold his or her breath during the exam.

An abdominal ultrasound is not invasive or painful. No anesthesia is given during this test. Your child may report that the gel feels cold when it is first applied. Holding the transducer tightly against the skin produces a slight sensation of pressure. The pressure can feel uncomfortable when, for instance, it is on a full bladder. The entire procedure takes about thirty minutes.

After the abdominal ultrasound procedure

When the abdomen ultrasound is finished, you may remove the gel from your child's chest and resume normal activities. Unless your child is an inpatient at the hospital for another reason, there is no hospital stay involved. No complications have been reported as a result of this procedure.

Abdominal Ultrasound Results

A radiologist analyzes and interprets the images created by the ultrasound. He or she then gives a report to your child's doctor. The doctor will make recommendations for treatment based on this report. You should have your child's results between one and several days after the test.

Get the Pediatric Ultrasound Patient Procedure.

Learn about other Intestine Transplant Tests.