Most women undergo ultrasound procedures during pregnancy, but are probably less aware of the reasons for a breast ultrasound, what the procedure entails and what it reveals. Ultrasound procedures use sound waves that bounce off the tissues of the body to create an image on the screen to help in studying the organ and to detect abnormalities if any.
Why a breast ultrasound may be needed
An ultrasound is one of the screening and/or diagnostic tools that are used to detect breast cancer. Women can opt for it following a doctor’s recommendation or if they have noticed some change or abnormality of the breast.
Any change in the shape, size, feel or appearance of the breast, that persists throughout the menstrual cycles (those that come and go depending upon the time of month are likelier to be harmless) should be investigated and a breast ultrasound can be a good option.
It can detect whether the unusual feeling in the breast is caused by a calcification, a cyst or a tumor (solid lump that could be malignant in cases).
The ultrasound can add important information in addition to what has been detected by palpation, clinical exam or by mammography and could shed light on what is causing pain, swelling or redness in the breast.
How a breast ultrasound differs from mammography
A mammography is the standard methodology for breast cancer screening and detection. Experts say that an ultrasound of the breast cannot replace a mammography procedure. Ultrasound use sound waves and not X-rays; hence they do not emit radiation and are less harmful to healthy tissue.
So an ultrasound could be performed first to see if a mammogram is needed, or it could be performed after a mammogram as a tool for further investigation.
The ultrasound is also able to examine the areas of the breast that are closest to the chest wall, which a mammogram could miss. It could also be more useful for examining breasts of younger women, who typically have dense breast tissue which may be difficult to observe properly by way of a mammogram. Also if a woman has breast implants, an ultrasound could facilitate better understanding of a problem.
Limitations of a breast ultrasound
The ultrasound also has its limitations since it cannot image the entire breast at the same time the way that a mammogram does. Since only parts of the breast can be imaged at any one given time, the best use of the ultrasound is after the mammography, if any abnormalities have been detected.
If the mammogram has found any abnormalities, these can then be spot checked using ultrasound. Spot checking the area where the abnormality is seen in the mammogram will reveal more about it, its nature and whether a biopsy is required.
Another of the limitations of the procedure is that it may not be able to look very deep into the breast tissue the way that a mammogram can. Also a breast ultrasound could miss micro-calcifications in the breast tissue.