A breast ultrasound is an imaging technique commonly used to screen for tumors and other breast abnormalities.

The ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the breasts. Unlike X-rays and CT scans, ultrasounds don’t use radiation and are considered safe for pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers. Breast ultrasound is non-invasive and often used as a follow-up test after an abnormal finding on a mammogram, breast MRI or clinical breast exam. Very often it is a complementary screening procedure during a gynaecological consultation after breasts palpation examination.

If a needle biopsy is needed, breast ultrasound may also be used to help guide the procedure.

Why is breast ultrasound used?

Ultrasound is useful for looking at some breast changes, such as those that can be felt but not seen or changes in women with dense breast tissue. It also can be used to look at a change that may have been seen on a mammogram. Ultrasound can be used to tell the difference between fluid-filled cysts and solid masses. (If a lump is really a cyst, it’s not cancer.). Moreover it is used to:

  • Find the cause of breast symptoms, such as pain, swelling, and redness.
    Light blue ribbon as symbol of prostate cancer awareness. Mars symbol used to represent the male sex. Pink ribbon as symbol of breast cancer awareness. Venus symbol used to represent the female sex.

    Cancer prevention and diagnosing screening

  • Check a breast lump found on breast self-examination or physical examination. It is used to see whether a breast lump is fluid-filled (a cyst) or if it is a solid lump. A lump that has no fluid or that has fluid with floating particles may need more tests.
  • Check abnormal results from a mammogram.
  • Look at the breasts in younger women because their breast tissue is often more dense, and a mammogram may not show as much detail.
  • Guide the placement of a needle or other tube to drain a collection of fluid (cyst) or pus (abscess), take a sample of breast tissue (biopsy), or guide breast surgery.
  • Watch for changes in the size of a cyst or a noncancerous lump (fibroadenoma).
  • See how far cancer has spread in a breast.
  • Check your breasts if you have silicone breast implants or dense breasts. In these situations, a mammogram may not be able to see breast lumps.

Ultrasound is widely available, easy to have done, and costs less than a lot of other options.

How is it done?

Breast ultrasound uses sound waves to make a computer picture of the inside of the breast.

A gel is put on the skin of the breast and an instrument called a transducer is moved across the skin to show the underlying tissue structure. The transducer sends out sound waves and picks up the echoes as they bounce off body tissues. The echoes are made into a black and white image on a computer screen. This test is painless and does not use radiation.

Aside from being used to determine the nature of a breast abnormality, a breast ultrasound may also be performed on women who should avoid radiation, such as:

  • women under age 25
  • women who are pregnant
  • women who are breast-feeding
  • women with silicone breast implants

As with any breast imaging, breast ultrasound depends on the level of skill and experience of the doctor interpreting the images. When a handheld transducer is used, ultrasound is also dependent on the skill and experience of the person doing the scan.

Automated ultrasound is an option that uses a much larger transducer to take hundreds of images that cover nearly the entire breast. When automated ultrasound is used, a second handheld ultrasound is often needed to get more pictures of suspicious areas.

What Are the Risks of a Breast Ultrasound?

Since a breast ultrasound doesn’t require the use of radiation, it doesn’t pose any risks. Radiation tests aren’t considered safe for pregnant women. An ultrasound is the preferred method of breast examination for women who are pregnant. In fact, the test uses the same type of ultrasound waves used to monitor the development of a fetus.