Why sonography matters to preventative medicine

Sonograms, also known as ultrasounds, have been a staple of medicine for decades. Widely used in obstetrics, sonograms are safe enough to study babies while still in the womb. They are accurate enough to quickly detect problems in the body, which is why they are routinely used in emergency rooms. From blood vessels to bones to every organ in between, sonography is a very useful tool to help diagnose all sorts of ailments.

Over time, sonography has taken a front-line role in preventative medicine. By spotting problems before they have a chance to become serious medical issues, sonograms allow doctors to intervene at early stages, resulting in less-invasive testing, faster recovery and the chance for better health for patients.

What is sonography?

A sonogram is a picture taken of the body using sound waves. One of the key components of an ultrasound machine is a transducer probe, which is filled with piezoelectric crystals that vibrate when an electrical current is applied. The result are sound waves, either low frequency at one to five megahertz, or higher frequency at 10 to 15 megahertz. The sound waves hit the structures in your body -- organs, bones, vessels -- and then bounce back, creating an image that shows up on the screen.

Sonography can be used to document what is happening inside the body, and it can also be used to guide physicians and nurses as they perform procedures. For instance, an anesthesiologist who is injecting medications near nerves can use ultrasound to help guide the needle, or a cardiologist might use ultrasound to guide a catheter being placed in a blood vessel.

The most common type of sonography is external, but internal ultrasounds or endoscopic ultrasounds are also performed. Diagnostic ultrasound is used to get images of what is happening in the body in order to diagnose conditions without taking invasive measures to do so. Therapeutic ultrasound is done at a higher frequency and can actually be used as treatment for some problems with the bodily tissues, such as benign tumors.

Why does sonography matter?

There are other types of medical imaging that can see into the body, such as X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and these can detect problems as well. But ultrasounds are often a first line of health care because of the ease of use -- the test can be done quickly and results are immediate -- and by the portability of sonography machines, some of which are small hand-held devices. For treating patients in critical condition, the ability to use ultrasound at the bedside cuts down on the need to move the patient to the radiology department and helps doctors make quick decisions that can determine a better outcome.

The World Health Organization states that effective imaging can help reduce unnecessary procedures, citing reports from various countries that conclude a significant number of abdominal surgeries could have been avoided if sonography had been used.

As health care costs rise and more individuals look to preventative care to avoid serious health complications, the ease and efficiency of ultrasound imaging may help them avoid the high bills stemming from procedures that might not have been necessary. In addition, ultrasound can be used to follow up on treatments performed or to monitor the spread of a disease in the patient. It is also a way to treat certain ailments without having to resort to invasive procedures, possibly saving money and offering the patient more comfort during their treatment.

Sources:
Cleveland Clinic, "Bedside Applications of Ultrasound," Padmaraj Duvvuri and Ajit Moghekar, 
World Health Organization, "Imaging modalities," Diagnostic imaging, 
Medical News Today,"What Is An Ultrasound?" May 16, 2012

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