Digestive Problems and Ultrasound Testing

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on August 18, 2019

Ultrasound testing helps in the diagnosis of a wide range of diseases and conditions, including stomach problems, gallbladder or pancreas problems, and abdominal pain. During an ultrasound test, high-frequency sound waves, inaudible to the human ear, are transmitted through body tissues using an instrument called a transducer. The sound waves then echo back and are picked up by the transducer, which transmits the information to a computer that displays it on a monitor.

Ultrasound is used to create images of soft tissue structures, such as the gallbladder, liver, kidneys, pancreas, bladder, and other organs and parts of the body. Ultrasound can also measure the flow of blood in the arteries to detect blockages. Ultrasound testing is safe and easy to perform.

What Digestive Problems Can Ultrasound Diagnose?

Ultrasound may be used to detect many digestive problems, including:

  • Cysts or abnormal growths in the liver, spleen, or pancreas
  • Abnormal enlargement of the spleen
  • Cancer of the liver or fatty liver
  • Gallstones or sludge in the gallbladder


Is Ultrasound Safe?

Studies have shown that ultrasound is generally safe. There are no known harmful side effects and there is virtually no discomfort during the test. In addition, ultrasound does not use radiation, as X-ray tests do. Although there are no known risks, ultrasound can heat up tissues in the body slightly and can also cause small gas pockets (known as cavitation) to form. The possible long-term effects of these are not known.

What Happens During an Ultrasound Test?

Before the Ultrasound

Generally, no special preparation is needed for an ultrasound. Depending on the type of test, you may need to drink fluid before the ultrasound or you may be asked to fast for several hours before the procedure.

During the Ultrasound

  • You will lie on a padded examination table.
  • A specially trained technologist will perform the test.
  • A small amount of water-soluble gel is applied to the skin over the area to be examined. The gel does not harm your skin and will be wiped off after the test.
  • A wand-like device called a transducer is gently applied against the skin.
  • You may be asked to hold your breath briefly several times.
  • The ultrasound test takes several minutes to complete.
  • A radiologist will interpret the test results.