Medically reviewed on Jan 6, 2018
An abdominal ultrasound is performed to evaluate abdominal structures, including the abdominal aorta. It may be used to check for a number of conditions. It's often the screening method of choice for detecting an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a weakened, bulging spot in your abdominal aorta, the artery that runs through the middle of your abdomen and supplies blood to the lower half of your body.
An abdominal ultrasound to screen for an abdominal aortic aneurysm is recommended for men ages 65 to 75 who are current or former cigarette smokers. Having an abdominal ultrasound to screen for an abdominal aortic aneurysm isn't specifically recommended for men who have never smoked, nor women, unless your doctor suspects you may have an aneurysm.
An abdominal aortic aneurysm occurs when a lower portion of your body's main artery (aorta) becomes weakened and bulges.
The enlarged area in the lower part of the aorta is an abdominal aortic aneurysm. An ultrasound image of an abdominal aortic aneurysm is shown in the upper right corner. Ultrasound imaging is often used to diagnose abdominal aortic aneurysms.
Why it's done
Your doctor may recommend that you have an abdominal ultrasound if you're at risk of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. A one-time abdominal aortic ultrasound screening is recommended for men between the ages of 65 and 75 who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes during their lifetimes.
Routine screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm isn't recommended for women, and it's unclear if men who have never smoked may benefit from an abdominal ultrasound to screen for an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
Risk factors for abdominal aortic aneurysm include:
- Being male
- Being age 65 or older
- Being white
- A history of atherosclerosis — a thickening of the walls of your arteries
- A family history of abdominal aortic aneurysm
- Smoking cigarettes
- High blood pressure (a systolic pressure of 140 to 159 millimeters of mercury, or mm Hg, or a diastolic pressure of 90 to 99 mm Hg)
- An aneurysm in one of your other arteries
Other possible reasons you may have an abdominal ultrasound
Your doctor may also recommend that you have an abdominal ultrasound if he or she thinks you have a problem with another organ in your abdomen, including the kidneys, liver, gallbladder, pancreas and spleen.
Ultrasound may be used to evaluate a variety of conditions, including kidney stones, tumors, abnormal liver function or abdominal pain or bloating.
How you prepare
You'll need to fast for eight to 12 hours before your abdominal ultrasound. Food and liquids in your stomach and urine in your bladder can make it difficult for the ultrasound technician to get a clear picture of your aorta. Ask your doctor if it's OK to drink water during your fast, and if you should continue to take any medications.
What you can expect
During the procedure
A typical ultrasound exam is painless and takes about 30 minutes to complete. You may be asked to change into a hospital gown for the procedure.
Your abdominal ultrasound is usually performed by a specially trained technician (sonographer). During the exam, you lie on your back on an examination table and a small amount of warm gel is applied to your abdomen. The gel helps eliminate the formation of air pockets between your skin and the instrument, called a transducer, the technician uses to see your aorta.
The sonographer presses the transducer against your skin over your abdomen, moving from one area to another. The transducer sends images to a computer screen that the technician monitors. The technician monitors blood flow through your abdominal aorta to check for an aneurysm.
After the procedure
After your abdominal ultrasound, your doctor will discuss the results with you at a later time. Usually, if no aneurysm or other problems are found, your doctor won't recommend any additional screenings. If an aneurysm or another problem is found, your doctor will discuss the need for any further tests and your treatment options with you.
Your doctor looks at the images from your ultrasound to see if you have an abdominal aortic aneurysm. If you do, your doctor may recommend one of these choices:
- Watchful waiting. If your aneurysm is smaller than about 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter, your doctor may not think your aneurysm is serious enough to require surgery now. If this is the case, your doctor may monitor your condition using ultrasound exams or other imaging tests, usually every six to 12 months.
- Open aneurysm repair. If your aneurysm is serious enough to require surgery, your doctor may recommend open aneurysm repair. In this procedure, your doctor opens your abdomen, removes the portion of your abdominal aorta that has the aneurysm and replaces it with a tubelike graft.
Endovascular stent graft. This procedure reinforces the weakened portion of the abdominal aorta with a graft similar to the type used in open aneurysm repair.
In this less invasive procedure, doctors attach a synthetic graft to the end of a thin tube (catheter) that's inserted through an artery in your leg and threaded up into your aorta. The graft — a woven tube covered by a metal mesh support — is placed at the site of the aneurysm and fastened in place with small hooks or pins. The graft then supports the weakened portion of your aorta to prevent rupture.
Recovery time for people who have endovascular surgery is generally shorter than for people who have open surgery. However, follow-up appointments are more frequent because endovascular grafts can leak. You'll need to have regular follow-up imaging scans to ensure the graft isn't leaking. Long-term survival rates are similar for both endovascular surgery and open surgery.