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Abdominal ultrasound

Overview

Abdominal aortic aneurysm

An abdominal aortic aneurysm occurs when a lower portion of the body's main artery (aorta) becomes weakened and bulges.

Illustration showing abdominal ultrasound of an abdominal aortic aneurysm

The enlarged area in the lower part of the aorta is an abdominal aortic aneurysm. An ultrasound image of an abdominal aortic aneurysm is shown in the upper right corner. Ultrasound imaging is often used to diagnose abdominal aortic aneurysms.

An abdominal ultrasound is a medical imaging test that uses sound waves to see inside the belly (abdomen) area. It's the preferred screening test for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. However, the test may be used to diagnose or rule out many other health conditions.

An abdominal aortic aneurysm, or aortic aneurysm, is an enlarged area in the lower part of the body's main artery (aorta). Health care providers recommend an abdominal ultrasound to screen for an aortic aneurysm in men ages 65 to 75 who smoke or used to smoke. Such screening isn't recommended for people who've never smoked. But it may be done if you have symptoms or a family history of an aortic aneurysm.

Why it's done

An abdominal ultrasound is done to see the blood vessels and organs in the belly area. Your health care provider may recommend this test if you have a condition affecting any of these body areas:

  • Blood vessels in the abdomen
  • Gallbladder
  • Intestines
  • Kidneys
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Spleen

For example, an abdominal ultrasound can help determine the cause of stomach pain or bloating. It can help check for kidney stones, liver disease, tumors and many other conditions. Your provider may recommend this test if you're at risk of an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Screening for aortic aneurysms

An abdominal ultrasound is the most common test to screen for abdominal aortic aneurysms. Screening means looking for the condition in people without symptoms. Early diagnosis helps you and your provider take steps to manage and treat the aneurysm. If an aortic aneurysm ruptures, the bleeding can quickly lead to death.

A one-time abdominal aortic ultrasound screening is recommended for men ages 65 to 75 who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes during their lifetimes.

Screening is also recommended for men age 60 and older who have or had a parent or sibling with aortic aneurysm. It's otherwise unclear if men who have never smoked may benefit from such screening.

Routine ultrasound screening for abdominal aortic aneurysms isn't recommended for women.

Risks

There are no known risks. Abdominal ultrasound is a safe, painless procedure. However, you may have some temporary discomfort if the care provider presses on an area that is sore or tender.

How you prepare

Your health care provider or radiology department will provide specific instructions.

You usually need to avoid food and drinks for 8 to 12 hours before an abdominal ultrasound. This is called fasting. Fasting helps prevent gas buildup in the belly area, which could affect the results.

Ask your provider if it's OK to drink water before the test. Don't stop taking any medications unless your provider tells you to do so.

What you can expect

Before the procedure

Before the abdominal ultrasound, you may be asked to:

  • Change into a hospital gown
  • Remove any jewelry
  • Store valuables in a locker near the exam room

During the procedure

For an abdominal ultrasound, you lie on your back on an examination table. A trained care provider (sonographer) applies a special gel to your belly area. The gel works with the ultrasound device to provide better images.

The provider gently presses the device against the belly, moving it back and forth. The device sends signals to a computer. The computer creates images that show how blood flows through the structures in the belly area.

An abdominal ultrasound exam takes about 30 minutes to complete.

After the procedure

You should be able to return to regular activities immediately after an abdominal ultrasound.

Results

After an abdominal ultrasound, your health care provider shares the results with you at a follow-up visit. Sometimes, the care provider's office calls with the results.

If the ultrasound test didn't show an aneurysm, you usually don't need any additional screenings to rule out an abdominal aneurysm. If the ultrasound was meant to rule other health concerns, you may still need additional studies.

If the test shows an aortic aneurysm or other health concern, you and your care provider will discuss a treatment plan. Treatment for an abdominal aortic aneurysm may include regular health checkups (watchful waiting) or surgery.

Last Updated: October 5th, 2022