Author: Dr Monica Pahuja*

What is a breast ultrasound?

Breast ultrasound is the examination of the breast tissue using an ultrasound scan. Ultrasound uses high frequency sound waves to produce images (or pictures) of the breast that are displayed on a screen.

Why would my doctor refer me to have this procedure?

If you or your doctor can feel a lump in the breast, ultrasound can help to distinguish fluid-filled lumps (cysts) from solid lumps that may be cancerous or benign (non-cancerous).

In younger patients who have breast symptoms (e.g. pain, lumps), ultrasound is often the first investigation. The breast tissue of younger women is much denser than it is in older women, and this can make it harder to detect an abnormality using an X-ray (mammogram).

Ultrasound is also used to diagnose problems such as complications from mastitis (an infection that occurs most often during breast-feeding), assessing abnormal nipple discharge or problems with breast implants.

Ultrasound is commonly used to guide the placement of a needle during biopsies (see InsideRadiology: Breast FNA or Core Biopsy).

How do I prepare for a breast ultrasound?

No preparation is necessary for this examination.

It is advisable to wear a two-piece outfit, so that only your top has to be removed to provide access to the breast area.

What happens during a breast ultrasound?

  1. You will be asked to remove your top and bra, and change into a gown.
  2. You will be asked to lie on a bed and one breast at a time will be examined.
  3. A triangular sponge will be placed behind your shoulder, so that you are rolled slightly onto your side. This helps position the breast to make scanning more effective.
  4. Gel is applied to the skin, and an ultrasound probe (called a transducer) is placed on the breast and gently moved around the breast to examine the breast tissue.
  5. Examination of the armpit (or axilla) will also be undertaken to assess for any enlarged lymph glands (or nodes), a lump or swelling (see InsideRadiology: Ultrasound for further details).

Are there any after effects of a breast ultrasound?

There are no after effects of a breast ultrasound.

How long does a breast ultrasound take?

The examination takes between 15–30 minutes.

Sometimes you will be asked to wait and have the images checked by a radiologist (specialist doctor). Sometimes it will be necessary for the radiologist to attend the examination, because it may be important to see the images on the screen rather than as still photographs. The radiologist may also want to examine your breast if you have a symptom (like a lump or skin changes) and might also ask you some questions about these symptoms. This extra information may help the radiologist to better understand your ultrasound images, so they can give an accurate diagnosis.

What are the risks of a breast ultrasound?

There are no risks from ultrasound. Even if you are pregnant, you are able to safely have an ultrasound examination.

What are the benefits of a breast ultrasound?

Ultrasound examination allows the detection and identification of most breast lumps. It is especially useful in distinguishing between solid and fluid-filled lumps.

If the ultrasound does not identify a lump that you or your doctor can feel, then other tests, such as mammography or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may be required to examine the breast.

Who does the breast ultrasound?

The examination is carried out by a health professional specially trained and accredited to do the test, such as a sonographer, sonologist, radiologist (specialist doctor) or a breast physician.

They may be male or female. If you are not comfortable with a male, you should let the reception staff at the radiology facility know this before having the test. In cases where the patient is young, a female chaperone may be requested (usually a nurse at the radiology facility). A parent, other relative, friend or partner can stay with you during the examination if you are more comfortable with this.

Where is a breast ultrasound done?

The examination is carried out in a radiology department of a hospital, private radiology practice or at a specialist breast clinic. The examination is done in the privacy of an ultrasound room, which may be dimly lit to allow the images on the ultrasound screen to be clearly seen by the person carrying out the scanning.

When can I expect the results of my breast ultrasound?

A full report of the scan will be written by the radiologist and sent to your referring doctor. The time that it takes your doctor to receive a written report on the test or procedure you have had will vary, depending on:

  • the urgency with which the result is needed;
  • the complexity of the examination;
  • whether more information is needed from your doctor before the images can be interpreted by the radiologist;
  • whether you have had previous X-rays or other medical imaging that needs to be compared with this new test (this is commonly the case if you have a disease or condition that is being followed to assess your progress);
  • how the report is conveyed from the practice or hospital to your doctor (i.e. telephone, email, fax or mail).

The radiology facility where you are having the test can advise you when the written report will be provided to your doctor.

It is important that you discuss the results with the doctor who referred you, either in person or on the telephone, so that they can explain what the results mean for you.

Useful websites about breast ultrasound:

Cancer Australia – Breast Cancer

*The author has no conflict of interest with this topic.

Page last modified on 31/8/2018.

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