What is an abdominal ultrasound?

An abdominal ultrasound is a noninvasive, painless imaging test. Your doctor uses an ultrasound machine to look at the size, structure and movement of blood and organs inside your belly. Ultrasound, also called sonography, uses sound waves instead of X-rays (radiation) to make images of your internal organs.

Abdominal ultrasound helps diagnose diseases and conditions of the organs inside the belly. This includes problems with the stomach, liver, kidneys, bladder, intestines, gallbladder, spleen, appendix and pancreas. 

You may have an abdominal ultrasound if you have certain symptoms, such as severe or persistent belly pain or swelling, or ongoing vomiting. Your doctor may use an abdominal ultrasound if other tests do not diagnose your condition or to guide a biopsy procedure. 

Your doctor may also order a Doppler ultrasound with your abdominal ultrasound. A Doppler ultrasound makes images of blood flow through vessels that run through the abdomen, such as the aorta.

An abdominal ultrasound is only one method used to test for many diseases and conditions. Discuss all of your testing options with your doctor or healthcare provider to understand which options are right for you.

Why is an abdominal ultrasound performed? 

Your doctor may recommend an abdominal ultrasound to diagnose diseases and conditions of the abdomen including:

  • Abdominal abscess, cyst or tumor, masses with symptoms that include abdominal bloating, swelling, and pain, fever, nausea, weight loss, or a lump or mass in the abdomen.
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm, a weakened or bulging area of a large artery that can rupture and bleed heavily
  • Abdominal injury including injured or ruptured organs
  • Abdominal pain or swelling, which can be caused by many conditions. These include appendicitis, cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder), or abdominal abscess.
  • Appendicitis, an inflammation of the appendix
  • Ascites, an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. The most common cause of ascites is cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Gallstones, which can cause right upper abdominal pain
  • Hernia, bulging of an organ or other structure through a weak part of tissue or muscle 
  • Kidney stones, which can cause severe pain in the flank area of the lower back. Pain can radiate to the lower abdomen as the stone travels down the urinary tract into the bladder. 
  • Pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the lower part of the stomach. It blocks passage of food from the stomach to the intestines.  It is a condition seen in infants.

Who performs an abdominal ultrasound?

A radiologic technologist often performs abdominal ultrasounds. A radiologic technologist is a medical professional who is trained in medical imaging and the care of patients during imaging procedures. 

A radiologist, also called a diagnostic radiologist, will evaluate your ultrasound images. Radiologists are doctors who specialize in performing and interpreting imaging tests. Your radiologist will provide your personal doctor with the ultrasound results.

Sometimes personal doctors perform and evaluate abdominal ultrasounds at the bedside. 

How is an abdominal ultrasound performed? 

Your abdominal ultrasound will be performed in a clinic or hospital. The procedure takes a half hour or less and generally includes these steps:

  1. You dress in a patient gown and lie on a table in the ultrasound room. Patients can sometimes wear their own loose-fitting clothing. The room will be dark so that the images are easier to read on the ultrasound screen.
  2. The technologist squeezes a water-based jelly onto your abdomen to help the ultrasound wand slide across your skin. The ultrasound wand is called a transducer. The wand sends and receives the sound waves to produce the image. 
  3. The technologist moves the wand gently back and forth across your belly while watching the ultrasound screen. 
  4. The technologist will gently press the wand down occasionally. You may have to shift your position or hold your breath for short periods. These steps help make good images, which helps diagnose your condition.
  5. The technologist wipes off the gel after the test. The gel is water-based and washes away easily.
  6. You may wait for a short period while the radiologic technologist or radiologist checks that the imaging is complete. Patients usually go home right after the test.