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.
Your doctor may perform a breast ultrasound if a suspicious lump is discovered in your breast. An ultrasound helps your doctor determine whether the lump is a fluid-filled cyst or a solid tumor. It also allows them to determine the location and size of the lump.
While a breast ultrasound can be used to assess a lump in your breast, it can’t be used to determine whether the lump is cancerous. That can only be established if a sample of tissue or fluid is removed from the lump and tested in a laboratory. To obtain a tissue or fluid sample, your doctor may perform an ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy. During this procedure, your doctor will use a breast ultrasound as a guide while they remove the sample of tissue or fluid. The sample will then be sent to a laboratory for analysis. You may feel nervous or frightened while waiting for the biopsy results, but it’s important to keep in mind that breast lumps are benign, or noncancerous.
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
A breast ultrasound doesn’t require any special preparation.
It’s also important to avoid applying powders, lotions, or other cosmetics to your breasts before the ultrasound. This can interfere with the accuracy of the test.
Before the ultrasound, your doctor will examine your breast. They’ll then ask you to undress from the waist up and to lie on your back on an ultrasound table.
Your doctor will apply a clear gel to your breast. This conductive gel helps the sound waves travel through your skin. Your doctor will then move a wand-like device called a transducer over your breast.
The transducer sends and receives high-frequency sound waves. As the waves bounce off the internal structures of your breast, the transducer records changes in their pitch and direction. This creates a real-time recording of the inside of your breast on a computer monitor. If they find something suspicious, they’ll take multiple pictures.
Once the images have been recorded, your doctor will clean the gel off your breast and you can then get dressed.
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.
The images produced by a breast ultrasound are in black and white. Cysts, tumors, and growths will appear as dark areas on the scan.
A dark spot on your ultrasound doesn’t mean that you have breast cancer. In fact, most breast lumps are benign. There are several conditions that can cause benign lumps in the breast, including the following:
- An adenofibroma is a benign tumor of the breast tissue.
- Fibrocystic breasts are breasts that are painful and lumpy due to hormonal changes.
- An intraductal papilloma is a small, benign tumor of the milk duct.
- Mammary fat necrosis is bruised, dead, or injured fat tissue that causes lumps.
If your doctor finds a lump that requires further testing, they might perform an MRI first and then they’ll perform a biopsy to remove a sample of tissue or fluid from the lump. The results of the biopsy will help your doctor determine whether the lump is malignant, or cancerous.