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Medical ultrasound (also known as diagnostic sonography or ultrasonography) is a diagnostic imaging technique based on the application of ultrasound. It is used to see internal body structures such as tendons, muscles, joints, vessels and internal organs. Its aim is often to find a source of a disease or to exclude any pathology. The practice of examining pregnant women using ultrasound is called obstetric ultrasound, and is widely used.
Ultrasound is sound waves with frequencies which are higher than those audible to humans (>20,000 Hz). Ultrasonic images also known as sonograms are made by sending pulses of ultrasound into tissue using a probe. The sound echoes off the tissue; with different tissues reflecting varying degrees of sound. These echoes are recorded and displayed as an image to the operator.
Many different types of images can be formed using sonographic instruments. The most well-known type is a B-mode image, which displays the acoustic impedance of a two-dimensional cross-section of tissue. Other types of image can display blood flow, motion of tissue over time, the location of blood, the presence of specific molecules, the stiffness of tissue, or the anatomy of a three-dimensional region.
Compared to other prominent methods of medical imaging, ultrasound has several advantages. It provides images in real-time, it is portable and can be brought to the bedside, it is substantially lower in cost, and it does not use harmful ionizing radiation. Drawbacks of ultrasonography include various limits on its field of view including patient cooperation and physique, difficulty imaging structures behind bone and air, and its dependence on a skilled operator.
Spectral Doppler scan of the common carotid artery
Colour Doppler scan of the common carotid artery
Sonography can be enhanced with Doppler measurements, which employ the Doppler effect to assess whether structures (usually blood) are moving towards or away from the probe, and its relative velocity. By calculating the frequency shift of a particular sample volume, for example flow in an artery or a jet of blood flow over a heart valve, its speed and direction can be determined and visualised. This is particularly useful in cardiovascular studies (sonography of the vascular system and heart) and essential in many areas such as determining reverse blood flow in the liver vasculature in portal hypertension. The Doppler information is displayed graphically using spectral Doppler, or as an image using color Doppler (directional Doppler) or power Doppler (non directional Doppler). This Doppler shift falls in the audible range and is often presented audibly using stereo speakers: this produces a very distinctive, although synthetic, pulsating sound.
All modern ultrasound scanners use pulsed Doppler to measure velocity. Pulsed wave machines transmit and receive series of pulses. The frequency shift of each pulse is ignored, however the relative phase changes of the pulses are used to obtain the frequency shift (since frequency is the rate of change of phase). The major advantages of pulsed Doppler over continuous wave is that distance information is obtained (the time between the transmitted and received pulses can be converted into a distance with knowledge of the speed of sound) and gain correction is applied. The disadvantage of pulsed Doppler is that the measurements can suffer from aliasing. The terminology “Doppler ultrasound” or “Doppler sonography”, has been accepted to apply to both pulsed and continuous Doppler systems despite the different mechanisms by which the velocity is measured.
It should be noted here that there are no standards for the display of color Doppler. Some laboratories show arteries as red and veins as blue, as medical illustrators usually show them, even though some vessels may have portions flowing towards and portions flowing away from the transducer. This results in the illogical appearance of a vessel being partly a vein and partly an artery. Other laboratories use red to indicate flow toward the transducer and blue away from the transducer. Still other laboratories prefer to display the sonographic Doppler color map more in accord with the prior published physics with the red shift representing longer waves of echoes (scattered) from blood flowing away from the transducer; and with blue representing the shorter waves of echoes reflecting from blood flowing toward the transducer. Because of this confusion and lack of standards in the various laboratories, the sonographer must understand the underlying acoustic physics of color Doppler and the physiology of normal and abnormal blood flow in the human body (see Red shift
Although Angiography and Venography which both use X-ray and contrast injection material are more accurate than Doppler Sonography, Doppler Sonography may be chosen because it is faster, less expensive, and non-invasive.
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