What’s the difference between a sonogram and an ultrasound?

sonogram-vs-ultrasound-ss1877436Many people believe that a sonogram and an ultrasound are the same thing, and there’s good reason for the confusion. Medical personnel often use the terms interchangeably. A doctor is just as likely to say, “I am ordering a sonogram,” as to say, “I am ordering an ultrasound.” Even the National Institutes of Health’s online medical encyclopedia, Medline Plus, lists each term as an alternative name for the other.

So, what is an ultrasound, and is it the same as a sonogram? The mystery is really very easy to unravel. Simply stated, when a doctor orders an ultrasound, he or she is ordering a diagnostic examination of the internal organs of the body. An ultrasonic exam is performed by directing high-frequency sound waves into the body and recording how quickly they bounce back. This is usually accomplished by guiding a handheld probe, coated with water-based gel, over the patient’s skin. Just like a submarine using sonar, the ultrasound machine uses the data it collects on the speed of the returning sound waves to create an image of the inside of the body. The image that is created can be viewed live on a screen or recorded for later use.

Doctors like ultrasounds because, unlike other diagnostic tests, they do not use radiation and are completely noninvasive. They do not cause any kind of tissue damage, and usually there is no preparation needed on the part of the patient before the exam. Ultrasonic exams are best known for their use in obstetrics and fetal monitoring. Most unborn babies today are carefully examined long before they ever leave the womb, but ultrasonic exams are used for a wide variety of other diagnostic purposes as well. A physician might order one to examine a patient’s gallbladder for stones, check a woman’s ovaries for cysts or to track the growth of a thyroid tumor. Ultrasounds can be used to check kidney function, examine dense breast tissue for cancer or locate a hernia.

Ultrasonic examinations are called many different things. They can be called an obstetric or gynecological sonogram, an abdominal sonogram, or an ultrasonograph. When used to see the inner workings of the heart, an ultrasound is referred to as an echocardiogram.

So where does the term sonogram fit in? A sonogram is simply the digital image created during an ultrasonic examination. Just as a camera produces photographs, an ultrasound machine produces sonograms. In other words, an ultrasound is the process of examining the inner workings of the body, and the sonogram is the image that the technician takes to document the exam. It’s as simple as that.

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