Examines internal organs, soft tissue and may also be used to assess blood flow to diagnose or monitor conditions.

At a glance

  • Procedure duration
    15-45 minutes

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Why Spire?

  • Fast access to diagnostic tests and scans
  • Specialist in a wide range of treatments
  • Clear pricing with no hidden charges

What is an ultrasound scan?

An ultrasound scan (also called a sonogram) uses high-frequency sound waves to create pictures of the inside of the body.

The sound waves bounce off the different tissues that make up your body and these echoes are detected by the ultrasound probe. This information is sent to a computer that turns them into moving images in real-time. You can’t hear the sound waves produced — the term ultrasound refers to sound waves that are beyond the human hearing range.

The unit of measurement for sound waves — their frequency — is Hertz. Ultrasound scans that are used to diagnose conditions are usually performed at 2-18 Hertz. Higher frequencies produce better quality images but they are also absorbed by your skin and other tissues. This means high-frequency sound waves can’t create images of tissues deep inside your body. Lower frequencies pass further into your body and therefore can create images of tissues deep inside your body, but the images are of poorer quality.

Your ultrasound scan will usually be carried out by a radiologist or a sonographer (a person trained in ultrasound scanning) who will also analyse the results of your scan.

Uses of ultrasound scans

An ultrasound scan can:

  • Diagnose bone, joint, muscle or tendon problems eg carpal tunnel syndrome, frozen shoulder, Morton's neuroma and tennis elbow
  • Examine internal organs and tissues (eg the appendix, bladder, gallbladder, kidneys, liver, lymph nodes, ovaries, pancreas, testes and thyroid gland) to diagnose a condition — an ultrasound scan can determine whether an abnormal lump is a solid tumour or fluid-filled cyst and can also detect kidney or gallbladder stones
  • Guide doctors during certain procedures eg a needle biopsy, where a needle is inserted to collect a tissue sample, or an injection to treat frozen shoulder
  • Check the flow of fluids through your body eg blood flow problems, such as deep vein thrombosis or aneurysms — this uses either a Doppler or duplex ultrasound scan
  • Detect heart abnormalities eg heart valve defects or examine the size, function and pressures in your heart and heart valves — this uses an echocardiogram

How do I know if I need an ultrasound scan?

Your doctor may recommend an ultrasound scan if you have or they suspect you have:

  • An abnormal growth or lump
  • Damaged ligaments, tendons or soft tissues
  • Liver and kidney problems
  • Bleeding or fluid in your muscles or joints
  • A heart problem

Where to get an ultrasound scan

Almost all Spire Healthcare hospitals offer private ultrasound scanning. Our fast diagnostics mean you don’t have to wait long for your results.

Spire Manchester Hospital

Preparing for an ultrasound scan

Your healthcare team will tell you how to prepare for your ultrasound scan — what you need to do will vary depending on the part of your body being scanned.

If you are having a pelvic ultrasound scan you may be asked to drink water and not urinate until after your scan.

If you are having an ultrasound scan of your digestive system, liver or gallbladder, you may be asked to:

  • Avoid drinking or eating for a few hours before your scan
  • Eat a low-fibre diet for several days leading up to your scan
  • This is to help reduce the amount of gas in your gut

Depending on the part of your body being scanned, you may be asked to change into a hospital gown. For some ultrasound scans, you may be injected with a contrast agent ie a special dye to improve how well certain tissues appear on the ultrasound images.

Ultrasound transducers

The ultrasound transducer (also called a probe) is a handheld device that is placed on the surface of your body, on the area that needs to be scanned, or in some cases, is inserted into your body.

How an ultrasound scan works

In a hospital, a radiologist will usually conduct your scan but in some cases, your consultant will. You may have an ultrasound scan at a clinic or GP practice, where it may be a doctor, midwife or nurse who performs your ultrasound scan — they will have completed special training to do this.

During your scan, you will lie down on an examination bed and the transducer will be placed over the part of your body to be examined.

The high-frequency sound waves produced in an ultrasound scan bounce off internal structures in your body. These create echoes that are detected by the transducer on your skin and turned into a moving image on a monitor. The transducer will be moved around to capture images in real-time from different angles. The images can show both structure and movement.

Types of ultrasound

External ultrasound scan

External ultrasound scans are often used to examine organs in your abdomen (eg kidneys and liver) and pelvis, as well as more superficial tissues such as your muscles and joints. However, they are also used to examine your heart.

A small, handheld transducer is placed on your skin, with a lubricating gel, and is moved over the part of your body being scanned. The lubricating gel ensures smooth movement and continuous contact between the transducer and your skin. The gel may feel cold.

Internal ultrasound scan

Internal ultrasound scans allow your doctor to get clearer images of your internal organs, such as the prostate, ovaries and womb.

During a transvaginal ultrasound scan, you will be asked to lie down on your back or on your side with your knees bent upwards. A small transducer will then be passed into your vagina.

During a rectal ultrasound scan, you will be asked to lie down on your back or on your side with your knees pulled up to your chest. A small transducer will then be passed into your rectum.

You may feel some discomfort as the transducer is passed into your body. However, the procedure is not usually painful and doesn't take long.

Doppler ultrasound for circulatory problems

A traditional ultrasound scan detects sound waves as they bounce off your tissues while a Doppler ultrasound scan detects sound waves bouncing off moving objects (eg blood cells) to measure their speed and how they flow through your body. This is possible because sound waves bouncing off moving objects do so at a slightly different frequency than sound waves bouncing off stationary objects. These sound waves can't be heard so they are amplified to allow your sonographer or doctor to hear them.

In the case of an ultrasound to check blood flow, your radiologist or doctor can hear the flow of blood through your blood vessels and determine whether it is abnormal. In a colour Doppler ultrasound scan, the sound waves are converted to colour images on a monitor so your sonographer or doctor can see the blood flow through your veins or arteries.

There are different types of Doppler ultrasound scans, including an echocardiogram (ECG). An ECG can capture images of your heart and blood vessels to measure blood flow and the movement of your heart muscle.

Duplex ultrasound

A Duplex ultrasound scan combines a traditional ultrasound scan with a Doppler ultrasound scan. This allows images of moving objects (usually displayed in colour) and the surrounding tissue (usually displayed in grey) to be captured at the same time.

Duplex ultrasound scans are usually used to check blood flow through different veins and arteries. You may have a duplex ultrasound scan to check if you have:

  • A blood clot
  • An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) — a widening of the main artery in your abdomen; there is a national screening programme for men aged 65 or over, which is performed using Duplex ultrasound scans
  • Arterial occlusion — blockage to an artery
  • Carotid occlusive disease — blockage to the arteries in your neck
  • Problems with the blood vessels supplying your kidneys
  • Venous insufficiency — veins that are not able to effectively send blood back to your heart
  • A duplex ultrasound scan can also be used to check for varicose veins

How long does an ultrasound scan take?

An ultrasound scan usually takes 15-45 minutes. There are no after-effects of a standard ultrasound scan so you can leave the same day and return to your normal activities.

How will I get my results?

Spire hospitals have an agreement with radiologists that reports should be completed within five working days - this is regardless of the body part that has been scanned. However, there are occasions when a specialist radiologist opinion is needed and in these cases it can take a little bit longer.

Results are always returned to your referrer - this can be your NHS GP, private consultant or private GP, or an organisation (such as the MoD).

Spire hospitals have an agreement with radiologists that reports should be completed within five working days - this is regardless of the body part that has been scanned. However, there are occasions when a specialist radiologist opinion is needed and in these cases it can take a little bit longer.

Results are always returned to your referrer - this can be your NHS GP, private consultant or private GP, or an organisation (such as the MoD).

You should arrange a follow up appointment with your referrer to receive the results of imaging examinations.

The results of imaging examinations often only form a part of the investigations and treatments requested or carried out by consultants, so should not be read in isolation. Your referrer will have a holistic view of your medical history, so can advise on the outcome of a radiology report alongside all other tests results and previous or current medical conditions.

Ultrasound risks

An ultrasound scan is generally a safe procedure with no known side effects. An ultrasound scan doesn't expose you to radiation unlike X-rays and CT scans

If you’re having an internal ultrasound and have an allergy to latex, it’s important to let your doctor know so they can use a latex-free cover on the ultrasound transducer that will be inserted into your body.

At Spire Healthcare, we’re careful to weigh up the benefits and risks of any ­­­­procedure and discuss it with you if you have any concerns.

What is the disadvantage of ultrasound?

The sound waves used in an ultrasound scan don’t penetrate well through bone, air or gas (eg gas in your bowels), which reduces the image quality. Being obese can also reduce the image quality. MRI and CT scans produce more detailed, clearer images.

What does a liver ultrasound scan show?

A liver ultrasound scan can help diagnose a range of conditions affecting the liver, such as liver cancer, liver cirrhosis and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Do you need to shave before an ultrasound scan?

No, you do not need to shave before an ultrasound scan.

Why have an ultrasound after a CT scan?

An ultrasound scan and a CT scan are both effective tools for imaging the inside of your body. However, they produce different types of images, which can reveal different things about your body. Your doctor may therefore refer you for an ultrasound scan after a CT scan if the necessary information wasn’t apparent on your CT scan.

What is the POD in an ultrasound scan?

POD refers to the Pouch of Douglas in women, also known as the recto-uterine pouch, which sits between the womb and the rectum (back passage). Fluid naturally collects here. If you have endometriosis an ultrasound scan may reveal that it has spread to the POD.

Can I eat before an ultrasound scan?

Depending on the area being scanned, you may be asked not to eat for several hours beforehand if, for example, you are having an ultrasound scan of your digestive system, liver or gallbladder. This is because eating will increase the amount of gas in your gut, which can reduce the quality of images produced during your ultrasound scan. For most ultrasound scans, you can eat, drink and take your medications as usual.

Can you see inflammation on an ultrasound scan?

Yes, an ultrasound scan can detect inflammation eg inflammation of your joints or gut.

Why is watery jelly used in ultrasound scans?

If you are having an external ultrasound scan, a watery jelly (a lubricating gel) will be placed on the part of your body to be scanned. This helps the ultrasound transducer (a handheld probe) remain in contact with your body as it is moved across it — this is necessary to ensure the sound waves effectively pass into your body and are detected as they bounce back.

The treatment described on this page may be adapted to meet your individual needs, so it's important to follow your healthcare professional's advice and raise any questions that you may have with them.

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