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Breast ultrasound is an imaging test that uses sound waves to look at the inside of your breasts. It can help your healthcare provider find breast problems. It also lets your healthcare provider see how well blood is flowing to areas in your breasts. This test is often used when a change has been seen on a mammogram or when a change is felt, but doesn't show up on a mammogram.
The healthcare provider moves a wand-like device called a transducer over your skin to make the images of your breasts. The transducer sends out sound waves that bounce off your breast tissue. The sound waves are too high-pitched for you to hear. The transducer then picks up the bounced sound waves. These are made into pictures of the inside of your breasts.
Your healthcare provider can add another device called a Doppler probe to the transducer. This probe lets your healthcare provider hear the sound waves the transducer sends out. He or she can hear how fast blood is flowing through a blood vessel and in which direction it's flowing. No sound or a faint sound may mean that you have a blockage in the flow.
Ultrasound is safe to have during pregnancy because it doesn't use radiation. It's also safe for people who are allergic to contrast dye because it doesn't use dye.
A breast ultrasound is most often done to find out if a problem found by a mammogram or physical exam of the breast may be a cyst filled with fluid or a solid tumor.
Breast ultrasound isn't usually done to screen for breast cancer. This is because it may miss some early signs of cancer. An example of early signs that may not show up on ultrasound are tiny calcium deposits called microcalcifications.
Ultrasound may be used if you:
- Have particularly dense breast tissue. A mammogram may not be able to see through the tissue.
- Are pregnant. Mammography uses radiation, but ultrasound does not. This makes it safer for the fetus.
- Are younger than age 25
Your healthcare provider may also use ultrasound to look at nearby lymph nodes, help guide a needle during a biopsy, or to remove fluid from a cyst.
Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to recommend a breast ultrasound.
A breast ultrasound has no risk from radiation. It poses no risk to pregnant women.
Breast ultrasound may miss small lumps or solid tumors that are commonly found with mammography. Being overweight or having very large breasts may make the ultrasound less accurate.
You may have risks depending on your specific health condition. Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider about any concerns you have before the procedure.
- Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure to you. Ask any questions you have about the procedure.
- You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the test. Read the form carefully and ask questions if anything is not clear.
- You don't need to stop eating or drinking before the test. You also will not need medicine to help you relax.
- You should not put any lotion, powder, or other substances on your breasts on the day of the test.
- Wear clothing that you can easily take off. Or wear clothing that lets the radiologist or technologist reach your chest. The gel put on your skin during the test doesn't stain clothing, but you may want to wear older clothing. The gel may not be completely removed from your skin afterward.
- Follow any other instructions your healthcare provider gives you to get ready.
You may have a breast ultrasound as an outpatient or as part of your stay in a hospital. The way the test is done may vary depending on your condition and your healthcare provider’s practices.
Generally, breast ultrasound follows this process:
- You will be asked to remove any jewelry and clothing from the waist up. You will be given a gown to wear.
- You will lie on your back on an exam table. You will be asked to raise your arm above your head on the side of the breast to be looked at. Or you may be placed on your side.
- The technologist will put a clear, warm gel on the skin over the breast area to be looked at.
- The technologist will press the transducer against the skin and move it over the area being studied.
- Once the test is done, the technologist will wipe off the gel.
You don't need any special care after a breast ultrasound. Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions, depending on your situation.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
- The name of the test or procedure
- The reason you are having the test or procedure
- What results to expect and what they mean
- The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
- What the possible side effects or complications are
- When and where you are to have the test or procedure
- Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
- What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure
- Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
- When and how will you get the results
- Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
- How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure