Updated: Apr 23, 2018
Ultrasound, also known as diagnostic medical sonography, vascular sonography, and echocardiography, is a technology used in nearly all medical practices nationwide. The increasing demand for ultrasound in doctors’ offices, hospitals, outpatient centers and mobile clinics has spurred growth in the field. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of diagnostic medical sonography is growing much more quickly than many other professions.
Because ultrasound is low-cost and extremely safe, it is one of the most commonly ordered diagnostic imaging tests. But unlike mammography, conventional X-rays and many other types of radiographic scans, ultrasound does not involve any ionizing radiation.
Ultrasound plays a crucial role in the diagnosis of many diseases. For example, if you show signs of a heart condition, your doctor will generally order an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart. For a suspected thyroid condition, your doctor will likely order a thyroid ultrasound. If you have abdominal or pelvic pain, your doctor will probably order an abdominal or pelvic ultrasound.
Doctors order ultrasounds to assess the carotid arteries for plaque that could cause a stroke. They also order ultrasounds to assess the renal arteries, checking for blockages that could be contributing to high blood pressure. Many orthopedists use ultrasound to assess the bones, ligaments, tendons, nerves and tissues in the skeletal system. Nearly every part of the body can be assessed with ultrasound, and medical facilities and professionals that use ultrasound in diagnosis seem to have better outcomes for their patients. Indeed, the best medical centers in our country, offering the best outcomes for patients, also have incredible ultrasound departments with talented sonographers.
The key to successful outcomes for patients is fast, safe, accurate diagnosis, and ultrasound ticks all those boxes. Diagnostic sonography tests are safe, painless, and usually take 30 minutes or less. Because the images are viewed in real time, diagnostic ultrasound is also extremely accurate.
Consider the role of ultrasound in detecting breast cancer. Typically, if a mammogram indicates anything suspicious, the radiologist will follow up by ordering an ultrasound to further evaluate and confirm the diagnosis. In a breast ultrasound, the clinician can safely view the breast tissue and blood flow, enabling detection of any tumors or microcalcifications, all without using any radiation. Ultrasound offers a more detailed view than a mammogram, and with the latest ultrasound technology, there’s practically no limitation to what can be seen.
Should ultrasounds be ordered instead of X-rays and CT scans? More and more medical professionals, including those from the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, now believe there is a need to employ safer diagnostic options, especially for pediatric patients. Considering that the most common type of cancer in children globally is leukemia and the leading cause of leukemia is radiation, using ultrasound as opposed to radiation-emitting diagnostic technologies whenever possible seems like a good choice. Today, many clinicians are ordering ultrasounds and MRIs instead of CT scans or X-rays for children — and even for adults — in an effort to decrease radiation exposure from medical tests that might be contributing to the development of cancer.
The increasing popularity of ultrasound as a diagnostic tool may also be due to recent advancements in ultrasound technology. For example, typical ultrasound transducers operate with frequencies ranging from 2 to 10 megahertz. But companies such as Mindray now manufacture ultrasound equipment that offers a new technology called ZONE, which offers an incredible 20 MHz transducer option for superior image detail.
Using Mindray's new probe, I was recently able to see a minuscule microcalcification on a tiny gallbladder polyp. The polyp itself measured less than 1 millimeter. The fact that I was able to see such a small calcification with Mindray's new technology is truly amazing. The ability to see microcalcifications with ultrasound gives the medical community and patients more options for diagnosis and evaluation, especially when it comes to breast cancer. I'm looking forward to seeing how clinicians and patients react to this incredible advancement in medical diagnosis.