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In an abdominal examination, ultrasound produces images of the major organs, including the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas, spleen, kidneys, and large blood vessels.


There are many reasons for examining the abdomen with ultrasound. Among the more common reasons are:

  • To look for causes of upper abdominal pain, including gallstones, cholecystitis, pancreatitis, kidney stones, or blockage in blood vessels of   the intestines

  • To look for causes of lower abdominal pain, including appendicitis, inflammation of the small and large intestines, and hernias

  • To look for abnormalities that may be present in the abdominal organs, such as masses or enlargements in the spleen or liver

  • To evaluate the nature of a mass that may have been felt by the examining doctor or seen on other radiologic exams

  • To determine the cause of kidney failure, such as kidney disease, urinary blockage, or blockage of the kidneys’ blood vessels

  • To evaluate for the cause of jaundice or abnormal liver enzymes

  • To look for enlargements (aneurysms) of the abdominal aorta

  • To evaluate for problems of flow in the blood vessels of the various abdominal organs

An ultrasound examination may not provide all the information your doctor needs. In these cases, additional studies may be required.


Your doctor will probably tell you to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, or chewing gum for 8 hours prior to the exam if the gallbladder, pancreas, or the upper abdominal blood vessels are going to be scanned during the ultrasound exam. This is because these actions increase the amount of abdominal gas, and most of these actions alter blood flow in upper abdominal organs and cause the gallbladder to contract, preventing an adequate ultrasound.

Will It Hurt?
There is no pain involved in an ultrasound examination of your abdomen. The transducer is placed on the skin surface after a gel is applied to your abdomen to provide better contact. The room is usually darkened during the examination.

How Long Will It Take?
The length of time for the examination varies with the complexity of the exam and the specific reasons for which it was requested. 30 minutes is an average time frame to start. Keep in mind if you are at a teaching facility,  you may be scanned by students, residents, and a physician, and this would add additional time to your exam.  After the exam, you can safely drive home and eat and drink normally.

Who Will Perform the Exam?
This will vary depending on where you choose to have your exam performed. An ARDMS board certified sonographer trained in ultrasound should be the one performing the exam.   He or she obtains and records a series of images and then a Radiologist, a Cardiologist, or an Ob-Gyn reviews the images and may discuss your exam with the sonographer or vascular technologist, and will then issue an official interpretation.

What Are the Limitations of the Exam?
Because bone weakens sound waves, ultrasound cannot be used to examine bones surrounding your abdomen, such as your ribs. Also, because sound is weakened as it passes through layers of tissue, results from patients who are overweight are not of the same quality as those who are thin. In addition, ultrasound cannot obtain images through gas. Thus, bowel gas may limit visualization of some structures of interest.
The ultrasound exam quality also greatly depends on the examiner’s experience and the type of equipment used.

How Much Does the Exam Cost? 
The price of an ultrasound examination varies slightly depending on the reason for the exam. Generally, insurance companies will help cover the cost of ultrasound examinations requested by your doctor.
Excerpt from the Medical Ultrasound Fact Sheet from the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM)

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