What is medical ultrasound?

This is a picture of a fetal ultrasound

Cross-section ultrasound image of a fetus Source: Phillips Health Care- iu22xMATRIX system

Medical ultrasound falls into two distinct categories: diagnostic and therapeutic.

Diagnostic ultrasound is a non-invasive diagnostic technique used to image inside the body. Ultrasound probes, called transducers, produce sound waves that have frequencies above the threshold of human hearing (above 20KHz), but most transducers in current use operate at much higher frequencies (in the megahertz (MHz) range). Most diagnostic ultrasound probes are placed on the skin. However, to optimize image quality, probes may be placed inside the body via the gastrointestinal tract, vagina, or blood vessels. In addition, ultrasound is sometimes used during surgery by placing a sterile probe into the area being operated on.  

Diagnostic ultrasound can be further sub-divided into anatomical and functional ultrasound. Anatomical ultrasound produces images of internal organs or other structures. Functional ultrasound combines information such as the movement and velocity of tissue or blood, softness or hardness of tissue, and other physical characteristics, with anatomical images to create “information maps.” These maps help doctors visualize changes/differences in function within a structure or organ.

Therapeutic ultrasound also uses sound waves above the range of human hearing but does not produce images. Its purpose is to interact with tissues in the body such that they are either modified or destroyed. Among the modifications possible are: moving or pushing tissue, heating tissue, dissolving blood clots, or delivering drugs to specific locations in the body. These destructive, or ablative, functions are made possible by use of very high-intensity beams that can destroy diseased or abnormal tissues such as tumors. The advantage of using ultrasound therapies is that, in most cases, they are non-invasive. No incisions or cuts need to be made to the skin, leaving no wounds or scars.

How does it work?

This is a picture of a technician giving a pregnant woman an ultrasound.  There is an image of the fetus on the computer monitor.

Source: Terese Winslow

Ultrasound waves are produced by a transducer, which can both emit ultrasound waves, as well as detect the ultrasound echoes reflected back. In most cases, the active elements in ultrasound transducers are made of special ceramic crystal materials called piezoelectrics. These materials are able to produce sound waves when an electric field is applied to them, but can also work in reverse, producing an electric field when a sound wave hits them. When used in an ultrasound scanner, the transducer sends out a beam of sound waves into the body. The sound waves are reflected back to the transducer by boundaries between tissues in the path of the beam (e.g. the boundary between fluid and soft tissue or tissue and bone). When these echoes hit the transducer, they generate electrical signals that are sent to the ultrasound scanner. Using the speed of sound and the time of each echo’s return, the scanner calculates the distance from the transducer to the tissue boundary. These distances are then used to generate two-dimensional images of tissues and organs.

Image of an ultrasound transducer

An ultrasound transducer.

During an ultrasound exam, the technician will apply a gel to the skin. This keeps air pockets from forming between the transducer and the skin, which can block ultrasound waves from passing into the body.

Click here to watch a short video about how ultrasound works.

What is ultrasound used for?

Diagnostic ultrasound. Diagnostic ultrasound is able to non-invasively image internal organs within the body. However, it is not good for imaging bones or any tissues that contain air, like the lungs. Under some conditions, ultrasound can image bones (such as in a fetus or in small babies) or the lungs and lining around the lungs, when they are filled or partially filled with fluid. One of the most common uses of ultrasound is during pregnancy, to monitor the growth and development of the fetus, but there are many other uses, including imaging the heart, blood vessels, eyes, thyroid, brain, breast, abdominal organs, skin, and muscles. Ultrasound images are displayed in either 2D, 3D, or 4D (which is 3D in motion).

Illustration of a women getting an ultrasound of blood flow in her carotid arteries

The ultrasound probe (transducer) is placed over the carotid artery (top). A color ultrasound image (bottom, left) shows blood flow (the red color in the image) in the carotid artery. Waveform image (bottom right) shows the sound of flowing blood in the carotid artery.

Functional ultrasound. Functional ultrasound applications include Doppler and color Doppler ultrasound for measuring and visualizing blood flow in vessels within the body or in the heart. It can also measure the speed of the blood flow and direction of movement. This is done using color-coded maps called color Doppler imaging. Doppler ultrasound is commonly used to determine whether plaque build-up inside the carotid arteries is blocking blood flow to the brain.

Another functional form of ultrasound is elastography, a method for measuring and displaying the relative stiffness of tissues, which can be used to differentiate tumors from healthy tissue. This information can be displayed as either color-coded maps of the relative stiffness; black-and white maps that display high-contrast images of tumors compared with anatomical images; or color-coded maps that are overlayed on the anatomical image. Elastography can be used to test for liver fibrosis, a condition in which excessive scar tissue builds up in the liver due to inflammation.

Ultrasound is also an important method for imaging interventions in the body. For example, ultrasound-guided needle biopsy helps physicians see the position of a needle while it is being guided to a selected target, such as a mass or a tumor in the breast. Also, ultrasound is used for real-time imaging of the location of the tip of a catheter as it is inserted in a blood vessel and guided along the length of the vessel. It can also be used for minimally invasive surgery to guide the surgeon with real-time images of the inside of the body.

Therapeutic or interventional ultrasound. Therapeutic ultrasound produces high levels of acoustic output that can be focused on specific targets for the purpose of heating, ablating, or breaking up tissue. One type of therapeutic ultrasound uses high-intensity beams of sound that are highly targeted, and is called High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU). HIFU is being investigated as a method for modifying or destroying diseased or abnormal tissues inside the body (e.g. tumors) without having to open or tear the skin or cause damage to the surrounding tissue. Either ultrasound or MRI is used to identify and target the tissue to be treated, guide and control the treatment in real time, and confirm the effectiveness of the treatment. HIFU is currently FDA approved for the treatment of uterine fibroids, to alleviate pain from bone metastases, and most recently for the ablation of prostate tissue. HIFU is also being investigated as a way to close wounds and stop bleeding, to break up clots in blood vessels, and to temporarily open the blood brain barrier so that medications can pass through.

Are there risks?

Diagnostic ultrasound is generally regarded as safe and does not produce ionizing radiation like that produced by x-rays. Still, ultrasound is capable of producing some biological effects in the body under specific settings and conditions. For this reason, the FDA requires that diagnostic ultrasound devices operate within acceptable limits. The FDA, as well as many professional societies, discourage the casual use of ultrasound (e.g. for keepsake videos) and recommend that it be used only when there is a true medical need.

What are examples of NIBIB-funded projects using ultrasound?

The following are examples of current research projects funded by NIBIB that are developing new applications of ultrasound that are already in use or that will be in use in the future:

An illustration of a robotic arm connected to a focused ultrasound transducer that rests above a human chest. A microcatheter injects an ink into a region below the transducer.

3D printing through the skin: Researchers at Duke University have developed a method to 3D print biocompatible structures through thick, multi-layered tissues. The approach entails using focused ultrasound to solidify a special ink that has been injected into the body to repair bone or repair soft tissues, for example. Initial experiments in animal tissue suggest the method could turn highly invasive surgical procedures into safer, less invasive ones. (Image on left courtesy of Junjie Yao (Duke University) and Yu Shrike Zhang (Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital)). 

A graphic shows a mouse before and after an ultrasound device fixed to its head is activated. The mouse is standing prior to activation and is laying down after.

Inducing a hibernation-like state: Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis used ultrasound waves directed into the brain to lower the body temperature and metabolic rates of mice, inducing a hibernation-like state, called torpor. The researchers replicated some of these results in rats, which, like humans, don’t naturally enter torpor. Inducing torpor could help minimize damage from stroke or heart attack and buy precious time for patients in critical care. (Image on right courtesy of Yang et al./Washington University in St. Louis).

A view of the ultrasound probe and the interior of the circuit. A wireless, wearable ultrasound patch: A fully wireless ultrasound patch that can continuously track critical vital signals such as heart rate and blood pressure has shown promise in a small study in humans. Developed by researchers at the University of California San Diego, the patch could facilitate the remote monitoring of critical physiological functions in the comfort of a patient’s home. (Image on left courtesy of Xu lab at UC San Diego.)

A volunteer study participant applies an ultrasound probe to their abdomen.

High-quality imaging at home: Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers compared ultrasound scans acquired by experts with those taken by inexperienced volunteers, finding little difference in the image quality of the two groups. The unconventional approach of having patients take ultrasound images of themselves at home and share them with healthcare professionals could allow for remote monitoring and reduce the need for hospitalization. (Image on right courtesy of Duggan et al./Brigham and Women's Hospital). 


Reviewed December 2023