Pelvic Ultrasound: Purpose and Results

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on April 29, 2024
7 min read

A pelvic ultrasound is an imaging test that uses sound waves to make pictures of what's inside your pelvis. Your pelvis is the part of your body that's between your belly and your legs. Your doctor might order this test to look at your organs and check for signs of a condition. It can also be used to check the health of a baby while still in the womb.

A pelvic ultrasound is used to view the:

It's also used to view the:

  • Bladder
  • Rectum
  • Prostate gland
  • Seminal vesicles (glands that add fluid to semen)

This test is called by a few other names, including:

  • Gynecologic ultrasound
  • Pelvic scan
  • Pelvic sonography
  • Transabdominal ultrasound
  • Transvaginal ultrasound
  • Transrectal ultrasound
  • Endovaginal ultrasound
  • Rectal ultrasound
  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • Pregnancy ultrasound

Pelvic ultrasound types

You'll have different types of pelvic ultrasounds depending on what it's for. Each type looks at different things. Pelvic ultrasound types include:

Abdominal ultrasound. This type looks at your organs from outside your pelvis.

Pregnancy ultrasound. This is similar to an abdominal ultrasound except that it looks at a baby inside your uterus.

Transrectal ultrasound. This type looks inside your rectum. It's often used to look at your prostate.

Transvaginal ultrasound. This form of pelvic ultrasound looks at your reproductive organs from inside your vagina.

Doctors can use a pelvic ultrasound to:

  • Find problems with the structure of your uterus or ovaries
  • Look for cancer in your ovaries, uterus, or bladder
  • Find an intrauterine device (IUD)
  • Look for growths like noncancerous tumors, fibroids, or cysts
  • Discover the cause of abnormal bleeding or pain
  • Evaluate or treat fertility problems
  • Monitor your baby's growth during pregnancy
  • Check for pelvic inflammatory disease (PID -- an infection of your uterus, ovaries, or fallopian tubes)
  • Diagnose an ectopic pregnancy (a fertilized egg that grows outside of the uterus)
  • Find a tissue sample to remove from your uterus during an endometrial biopsy
  • Check for problems with the bladder, prostate gland, and seminal vesicles
  • Find bladder tumors or stones

Why would I need a pelvic ultrasound?

Your doctor might order a pelvic ultrasound if you're having:

  • Trouble getting pregnant
  • Painful sex
  • Pain when you pee
  • Other kinds of pain in your pelvis or belly
  • Swelling in your pelvis
  • Periods that aren't normal
  • Trouble holding your pee (urinary incontinence)

Can a pelvic ultrasound detect cancer?

An ultrasound can't tell for sure if you have cancer, but a doctor may use it to look for signs that you might. Doctors use pelvic ultrasounds to help diagnose lots of conditions, including:

  • Cancer, such as bladder cancer, gynecologic cancer, prostate cancer, or testicular cancer
  • Hernias
  • Kidney stones
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Endometriosis
  • Cysts in ovaries or seminal vesicles
  • Ovarian torsion
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Pelvic organ prolapse
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Infection
  • Injury to the penis or scrotum

Your doctor might also use ultrasound to help them get a biopsy sample of your organs to look for cancer. A pelvic ultrasound can help them see where the needle is so they can get it to the right place.

If you are having a transabdominal ultrasound, your bladder will need to be full. You'll drink about 32 ounces -- or four 8-ounce glasses -- of water or another clear fluid at least 1 hour before the test. A full bladder makes your organs show up more clearly on the picture. You can use the bathroom after the procedure.

A transvaginal or rectal ultrasound is usually done with an empty bladder. It's a good idea for you to use the bathroom before the test.

Wear loose, comfortable clothes to the exam. You might need to wear a gown during the procedure.

Your doctor should help you to know what to expect. Be sure to ask any questions you have about what they'll do or what they're looking for.

Pelvic ultrasound price

Your cost will depend on your insurance, the reason for your pelvic ultrasound, and what type you need. It also will depend on where you live and where you're having the procedure. One estimate for a complete pelvic ultrasound showed an average cost of $1,355. But your out-of-pocket cost may be a lot less. If you don't have insurance to cover it or are worried about cost, ask what you can expect to pay. Ask at your clinic if there is an uninsured discount or other financial assistance.

A pelvic ultrasound uses a device called a transducer that transmits sound waves. These sound waves bounce off your organs and tissues and echo back to the transducer. A computer converts the sound waves into a picture of your organs, which appear on a video screen. Your doctor can do this test in one of three ways. 

Transabdominal ultrasound is done through your abdomen. You lie on your back on an exam table. The technician puts a little bit of gel on the transducer. The gel helps the transducer move more smoothly and prevents air from getting between the device and your skin. The technician gently runs the transducer back and forth over the skin of your belly.

Transvaginal ultrasound is done through the vagina. You lie on your back on an exam table. You might have your feet up in stirrups. The transducer is covered in gel and a plastic or latex covering. Then it's inserted into your vagina, much like a tampon.

Transrectal ultrasound is done through the rectum. You lie on your side, facing away from the technician. Your doctor places a cover over the transducer. Then it goes inside your rectum.

A Doppler ultrasound is another type of ultrasound. It measures the speed and direction of blood as it flows through arteries and veins in your abdomen. Your doctor can use this test to look for narrowing or blockages in your blood vessels. You might hear a "whooshing" sound as a Doppler ultrasound is done.

The test itself doesn’t have risks. Unlike X-rays, an ultrasound doesn't use radiation.

A transabdominal ultrasound shouldn't hurt. You might feel some discomfort during a transvaginal or transrectal ultrasound when the transducer is put in. Since your doctor is placing something inside you, there's a slight risk of infection. If you have a latex allergy, let your doctor know. The transducer will be covered in a sheath made of plastic or latex.

It's not likely you'll notice anything abnormal after a pelvic ultrasound. But let your doctor know if you have:

  • Pain
  • Bleeding
  • Fever
  • Any other problem

If you have certain conditions, you might not get good results from your pelvic ultrasound. Conditions that may make it hard for your doctor to see include:

  • Obesity that's severe
  • Barium in your intestines from another procedure
  • Gas in your intestines
  • A bladder that isn't full

A radiologist will analyze your pelvic ultrasound images and send a report to your doctor. This report will show any problems with your pelvic organs, blood vessels, or fetus.

Your doctor will explain the test results to you. Make sure you understand what your results mean and how they will affect your treatment.

Your doctor might recommend other tests to check the health of your pelvic organs, including these:

  • Hysteroscopy inserts a thin, lighted device through the vagina and into the uterus to look for problems in the uterus.
  • Laparoscopy uses a thin, lighted tube that goes through your abdominal wall to view organs in your pelvis.

Your doctor will let you know if you need these or other tests.

Your doctor can use a pelvic ultrasound to look for many things. It takes an expert to read them. It's best to wait and get the results of your ultrasound from your doctor rather than trying to tell yourself if the results aren't what you want to hear. For example, a pregnancy ultrasound could make your doctor think something might be abnormal. But the test likely just means there's something your doctor wants to look at more closely. 

The best thing for you to do is take a deep breath. Remember that you don't know that you have an abnormal ultrasound reading. Even if you do, it could:

  • Be nothing
  • Be something that is mild or not serious
  • Be something more serious, but now you can do something about it

Anytime you have questions or concerns, let your doctor know. If you need more support, let them know that, too.

Your doctor may use a pelvic ultrasound to look in the area between your belly and legs for many reasons. You may get different types depending on what they want to see. You may have some discomfort during the procedure depending on what type it is, but it shouldn't hurt. If your doctor sees anything that looks abnormal, they may order other tests. Ask your doctor about what they're looking for in your pelvic ultrasound and what you can expect.

  • What is the difference between pelvic scan and pelvic ultrasound?

A pelvic scan is another name for ultrasound. Scans usually refer to any kind of imaging test.

  • Can a pelvic ultrasound detect bowel problems?

Yes. Your doctor can use a pelvic ultrasound to look at any of your internal organs in the area of your pelvis. If they look at your bowel, they may be able to see signs of conditions such as appendicitis, diverticulitis, colitis, obstruction, Crohn's disease, or cancer.

  • How long does a pelvic ultrasound take?

A pelvic ultrasound usually doesn't take long. It might take 15-30 minutes total. But how long your pelvic ultrasound will take will depend on your doctor and how many different areas they want to look at. Ask your doctor how long to expect your ultrasound scan will take.