In praise of Ultrasound, the unsung hospital hero

Chris Brunner Chris Brunner Senior Content Producer for hospitals and clinical services at Nuffield Health
Ultrasound is so much more than just a pregnancy scan. Find out what makes it one of the hardest working machines in any hospital.

Medical science has given us much to marvel at. It’s easy to be awed by the huge, shiny MRI scanner and the incredible physics it uses to look inside your body. While the ultrasound machine, tucked in the corner of the room, looks like a computer built for children. But here’s why it’s so great:

Zero ionising radiation

That’s right, zilch. Employing the same sonar technology used by ships, ultrasound bounces high-frequency sound waves off your internal organs and back into a microphone. The information is converted into highly detailed pictures in real time. Without the need for ionising radiation, the scan is safe to perform on anyone, including pregnant women - and it’s become famous for doing just that. Just think about how many expectant parents see their growing baby in detail for the first time with the help of this technology.

It goes beyond babies

Ultrasound is an excellent scout when looking at anything not blocked by bone or buried too deep within your body. So as well as gathering incredible first pictures of unborn babies, ultrasound can also:

  • Scan breast tissue to help diagnose lumps or other abnormalities
  • Perform gynaecological scans with the help of special probes
  • Be used to diagnose testicular lumps and abnormalities
  • Look at major organs like the liver, kidneys and heart
  • Be used by vascular surgeons to diagnose and find the source of varicose veins
  • Guide doctors in making injections for joint pain and surgeons taking biopsies
  • Be miniaturised and used in conjunction with endoscopy to look inside your stomach
  • Diagnose musculoskeletal conditions and injuries by looking at muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments throughout the body.

To do this ultrasound uses an array of differently-shaped probes, each designed to look at specific areas of the body. It really is a clinical workhorse, helping all kinds of medical professionals, from surgeons to physiotherapists, to do their jobs.

It tickles

Usually a non-invasive test, ultrasound is well tolerated by patients - some even enjoy it a little. Perhaps ultrasound’s least celebrated feature is the weird sensation the cool gel and the gliding probe produce. The gel is used to keep the probe in constant contact with your skin and the probes are designed to be smooth and gentle. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but many find it relaxing.

Last updated Friday 7 December 2018