When Is Ultrasound the Best Option?

ultrasound scanWhen diagnosing medical conditions, there are myriad testing options. Physicians can prescribe ultrasound, x-ray, Computed Tomography (CT) Scan and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), to name a few. When is ultrasound the best option? Let us look at the different characteristics of some of the options.


Ultrasound delivers no radiation. Rather, it is done by sound waves that are delivered in short pulses, reflecting off the area of the body being examined. The sound waves are transmitted through a transducer and into a scanner to make a digital image for evaluation. To enhance the image, a gel is used between the patient’s skin and transducer to eliminate air bubbles.

The one major downside to ultrasound is that certain areas of the body are difficult to image because dense bone or organs obstruct the sound waves. Technicians can usually maneuver the ultrasound probe enough to obtain the best diagnostic view.

An ultrasound procedure typically takes 10 to 15 minutes and is generally not painful or uncomfortable for the patient. There are no side effects from ultrasound.

When to Use Ultrasound

Ultrasound procedures are used to diagnose abnormalities involving internal organs, including kidney and gallbladder. Muscles and tendons are clearly assessed using this imaging. Ultrasound is not effective to visualize bony structures.

An important function of ultrasound is obstetrics. For over thirty years, ultrasound has been used during a woman’s pregnancy to image and track the developing fetus. Obstetric imaging is done externally over the abdomen or transvaginally, which is when the probe is inserted in the vagina for an unobstructed view of the fetus and surrounding organs.

Other Scanning Options

CT Scan

A CT scan creates a three dimensional view of the targeted organ(s) by sending multiple beams of x-ray through the body. This is done on a scanning system that typically rotates around the patient, or the patient can be repositioned on a bed. The CT imaging process usually takes 5-20 minutes.

CT scans are used to detect diseases like cancer as well as abnormalities of the head, abdomen, chest, heart and extremities. Bony structures are seen in great detail with a CT scan.

During a CT scan, the patient can be exposed to moderate to high amounts of radiation. Researchers have associated CT scans with a potential risk of causing cancer due to radiation exposure.


This form of imaging involves being scanned within a magnetic field, which requires the patient to be metal-free while sitting or lying on a table. In order for the images to be clear and concise, the entire scanning room should be free of any metal. Patients with implanted devices like pacemakers must defer to other forms of diagnostic study, such as ultrasound imaging. Therefore, ultrasound is the best option for patients who have implanted devices. There is no traditional radiation exposure with an MRI.

Traditional x-ray can be relatively cost-effective, but both MRI and CT scans tend to be quite expensive. If cost is a consideration, ultrasound may be the best option in many cases.

The Bottom Line

The benefits of ultrasound imaging include no radiation exposure, cost effectiveness and virtually no potential side effects for the patient. While there is a place in medical diagnostics for each and every type of radiology study, ultrasound is a safe and reliable place to start the process.

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