Ultrasound scan - When it is used 

When an ultrasound scan may be used 

An ultrasound scan can be used in several different ways, such as monitoring an unborn baby, diagnosing a condition or guiding a surgeon during certain procedures.


Ultrasound scans are a routine procedure for pregnant women. They produce images of the unborn baby inside the womb and display them on a monitor.

Most women are offered at least two ultrasound scans during pregnancy:

  • the first scan (at around 8-14 weeks) can help to confirm the pregnancy and determine when the baby is due
  • the second scan (usually at around 18-21 weeks) checks for structural abnormalities, particularly in the baby's head or spine

However, an ultrasound scan can be done at any time during pregnancy and causes no harm to the baby.

Read more information about when ultrasound is used during pregnancy.

Diagnosing conditions

Ultrasound scans can help diagnose problems in many parts of your body, including your:

  • liver (cirrhosis)
  • gallbladder (gallstones)
  • thyroid gland
  • lymph nodes
  • ovaries
  • uterus (womb)
  • testes
  • breasts

For example, it can help to detect whether a lump in one of these organs is a tumour or a cyst.

Ultrasound may also be used to diagnose problems with your:

  • blood vessels (aneurysm)
  • joints, ligaments and tendons
  • skin
  • eyes

The hip, spine and brain of newborn babies can be scanned for abnormalities, but by 18 months old the skull has fully grown and it is no longer possible to use ultrasound on the brain without surgery.

Echocardiogram (ECG)

An ultrasound scan can be used to examine the size, shape and movement of your heart. For example, it can check that the structures of your heart, such as the valves and heart chambers, are working properly and your blood is flowing normally. This type of ultrasound scan is called an echocardiogram (ECG).

ECG can also be used to diagnose heart problems in babies, even before they are born. This is called foetal echocardiography, and is carried out during routine antenatal examinations. Read more about how congenital heart disease is diagnosed.


Ultrasound can be used to guide doctors during certain procedures, such as a biopsy (where a tissue sample is taken for analysis). This is to make sure the surgeon is working in the right area and is often used when diagnosing breast cancer.

Page last reviewed: 08/08/2013

Next review due: 08/08/2015


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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

chattabox said on 20 June 2014

information needed on an ultra sound scan regarding a torn shoulder tendon showing an 11 m/m tear GP reluctant
to discuss if iit can be repaired surgically. Need directing to a forum

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char1otte1ouisa said on 02 May 2013

Yesterday I went for an ultrasound at Princess Royal Hospital in Sussex. I have anxiety problems and was extremely nervous and tearful when I was told that the scan would be external and internal. But the nurse was ever so kind, and really explained everything to me to help calm me down. She gave me choices in how to proceed, explained to me what she found on the screen, and at the end she asked me if I had any questions. She was slow and deliberate, even though I was the last patient of the day, so that I didn't feel hurried or more panicked.
More than anything, she allowed me to keep my dignity, because I had been petrified that I would feel exposed and like cattle being prodded!
If you also have anxiety issues about this kind of thing, then be sure to tell your nurse. If you don't communicate your worries, then you are more likely to feel upset or violated afterwards. Say something at the outset, and it will be a better experience for you as the patient.

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