What is Ultrasound Technology?
Ultrasound technology, also called diagnostic medical sonography—or simply sonography—is a medical diagnostic tool that uses high-frequency sound waves to generate images of a person’s internal organs, tissues, and blood.
Using a small wand-like instrument called a transducer, sound waves are transmitted into a specific part of the body, and the returning echo waves are captured and converted into images. These images are known as “ultrasound scans” or “sonograms.” Doctors use ultrasound imaging to find abnormalities of the internal organs and diagnose illness, as well as to monitor the health of developing fetuses in pregnant women.
Ultrasound Imaging Specialties
Ultrasound imaging is increasingly used to diagnose internal medical conditions because unlike other medical imaging techniques such as X-rays, CT (computed tomography) scans or nuclear medicine, ultrasound doesn’t use or emit radiation into the body. This makes ultrasound imaging a popular method for testing pregnant women and babies, who are at high risk for complications associated with radiation. However, there are many other ways in which ultrasound imaging is used to diagnose illness in the body.
One great component of ultrasound tech is the ability to move into specialty fields. Once you have your degree you can get certification to help you specialize. Here is a list of common ultrasound technician education and career specialties:
Abdominal sonographers specialize in generating images of the internal organs and tissues located within the abdomen such as the liver, pancreas, spleen, and gallbladder.
Obstetrics/Gynecology (OB/GYN) sonographers work exclusively with women to survey their reproductive organs and track the health and development of fetuses during pregnancy.
Vascular technologists are trained to use special equipment designed to visually track blood flow in other areas of the body.
Neurosonology sonographers are specially trained to use ultrasound imaging on the brain and spinal cord.
Breast sonographers conduct ultrasound scans using a sound frequency specifically targeted for breast tissue to evaluate tumors and other abnormalities found in mammograms or physical exams.
Echocardiography sonographers, specializing in echocardiography (EKG) are trained in the evaluation and imaging of the heart, its related valves and vessels, and blood flow to and from the heart.
Ophthalmology sonographers perform diagnostic tests on the eyes and surrounding muscles and tissue.
One Woman’s Professional Career Path
Ultrasound sonography careers are more complex than you might expect at first glance. Take the word of Vickie Martin, medical sonographer and Co-Director of the General and Vascular Technology Program at University of Kansas Medical Center (UKMC). “Sonography takes a lot of self-confidence and problem-solving ability. It’s not just taking one picture—it’s knowing how to get the images you need.”
After training in diagnostic radiology, she had a rotation in sonography and fell in love with the work. “You have to look at the anatomy and the pathology, and decide what pictures need to be taken. I liked helping people, and I liked the complexity of the exam.”
Martin explains some of the complexities of the ultrasound technology involved. “Sonography uses sound waves, and many people have seen the black and white image. We also use a Doppler system that is in color and can show motion in the body. We split the screen in half, to view a picture on the top half and a wave-form diagram on the bottom. By looking at the signal, we can see how much blood is flowing through an artery.”
A Growing Field of Possibility
Martin asserts that there’s lots of work available, especially in smaller towns, for ultrasound techs. “In the past most sonographers were women, but I think that’s changing,” she says. “Medical ultrasound used to be all about obstetrics, but vascular imaging and heart echo imaging are a larger part of it now. I think it’s becoming more interesting to men. There’s no limitations in this field for anyone.”
Ultrasound sonography careers are growing rapidly, as sonography techniques become more sophisticated and allow imaging of areas that formerly used radiologic technology and now utilize 3-D imaging for mammography and other exams. For both patients and technologists, this offers a more comprehensive, safer alternative