Though most commonly known for producing the first black and white images of an unborn baby, the diagnostic ability of today’s ultrasound reaches far beyond the bounds of standard pregnancy. In fact, ultrasounds are one of the most commonly used diagnostic tests that allow physicians a closer look at tumors, reveal blood clots and help determine sources of pain.
At New Hanover Regional Medical Center, more than 10,000 ultrasounds are performed each year, along with another 5,000 performed yearly at Cape Fear Hospital, the Medical Mall and the Forum Diagnostic Center.
“It’s not just for babies,” said Tara Williams, NHRMC’s lead sonographer. “People don’t realize you can look at the kidneys or the gallbladder.
“If they’re having chronic nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain, we’ll do an abdominal ultrasound to rule out gallstones, kidney stones, pancreatitis or an abdominal aortic aneurysm.”
The portability of the ultrasound machine and the open-at-all-hours nature of the hospital mean sonographers are called on all hours of the day and night to help physicians get a better look inside a patient or to provide visibility during some invasive procedures.
Trauma patients who have suffered through a car crash will often be quickly scanned to determine if internal bleeding is occurring or if organs have been ruptured. If so, they’re immediately taken into surgery.
Patients may arrive in the emergency department with pain and bleeding only to find out that they’re pregnant. In such cases, ultrasounds help determine the viability of the pregnancy by showing if the pregnancy has taken place outside the uterus or if the baby has miscarried.
Ultrasounds also play a role in some invasive procedures like biopsies, providing visibility to guide physicians. One frequent use is in liver biopsies for determining the progression of Hepatitis C so appropriate drug regimens may be planned. On average, 10 to 15 liver biopsies using ultrasound are performed weekly at NHRMC. Two-thirds of those usually involve testing or staging Hepatitis C; many others are to test the spread of cancer into other organs.
“It’s a good diagnostic tool without the invasive nature of radiology,” Williams said, referring to the radiation present with X-ray or CT scans that is not present with ultrasound. “It’s safe for people of all ages, safe for those with pacemakers, for pregnant women and babies.”
From scanning premature babies to check for bleeding in their heads, to helping urologists place stents in kidneys or helping place radioactive implants to treat malignant tumors, ultrasounds remain in the front of the arsenal when it comes to diagnosing the human body.
Ultrasounds are available at New Hanover Regional, Cape Fear Hospital, the Medical Mall and the Forum Diagnostic Center and are performed only by physician order. Ask your doctor to schedule your next ultrasound at one of these locations.
For health information or physician referral, call VitaLine at 1.888.815.5188.