Ultrasonography is Ultrasound Imaging Used to Help Diagnose Spinal Disorders

Imaging tests help illuminate the cause of your back and neck pain. One type of imaging technology is ultrasonography, also called sonography or medical ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create pictures of the inside of your body. If your doctor has ordered ultrasonography to help diagnose your spine disorder, this article will help you learn more about it.

There are 2 types of medical ultrasound: diagnostic and therapeutic. This article will focus on diagnostic ultrasound. Therapeutic ultrasound is a common non-surgical treatment for back and neck pain and musculoskeletal injuries.
Technician using an ultrasonography machineMedical ultrasound or ultrasonography is a diagnostic tool your doctor or ultrasound technician uses to diagnose types of spinal disorders. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

What Is Ultrasound—and How Does It Work?

Ultrasound is an imaging modality that uses sound waves to display images of the inside of your body on a screen. The tools it uses to accomplish this are: ultrasound gel and a hand-held probe called a transducer.

Typically, the procedure is performed by an ultrasound technician who applies gel on the part of your body being examined, and then glides the transducer over your skin. The transducer then sends sound waves into your body (though you won’t hear anything). As the sound waves contact your body’s internal structures (eg, soft tissues), the transducer picks up the echoing sounds to produce the images, which are instantly displayed on a nearby computer monitor.

Like other types of spinal imaging exams, ultrasound technology has advanced over the years. Beyond conventional ultrasound, advanced sonography technology includes 3-D ultrasound and Doppler ultrasound. As the name suggests, 3-D ultrasound captures 3-D images. Doppler ultrasonography is a newer form of ultrasound that better illuminates blood flow throughout the body.

Ultrasonography is a painless, non-invasive form of medical imaging. Since it uses sound to create internal images and not radiation, so you don’t need to worry about radiation exposure during this test.

What Spinal Disorders Does Ultrasound Help Diagnose?

When most people think of ultrasound, the first thing that comes to mind is an image of a fetus on a computer screen. Ultrasound is used to monitor a baby’s health while in utero—and it’s arguably the most well-known use of this technology—but its benefits go well beyond that.

When patients complain of pain, inflammation, or show signs of infection, medical ultrasound can help doctors understand the origin of those symptoms. Sonography is commonly used to help your doctor understand if you have a condition affecting an organ (such as your heart, bladder, kidneys, and liver). It works well in these organs since they have a common consistency and lesions are readily detected since they will be different from the remainder of the organ.

Ultrasound is less often used to diagnose older children and adults with back and neck pain, as it can’t clearly display internal bone images and these areas have different tissue densities, which makes identifying abnormities difficult. However, it’s particularly effective when treating newborns and infants with possible spine disorders. Because ultrasound is considered safe and non-invasive—and because infants have more cartilage and less solid bone—it can help doctors understand whether a baby has a spinal cord problem or spinal tumor.

Though more research needs to confirm ultrasound’s efficacy in diagnosing back and neck pain in adults, ultrasound may help diagnose several spine disorders, including:

The safety and simplicity of ultrasound makes it appealing to doctors and patients alike. One area of emerging opportunity for ultrasound in diagnosing spine problems is through its use in image-guided diagnostic injections. Diagnostic injections determine the cause of your pain by injecting a numbing medication into the suspected site of pain. The amount of immediate pain relief you experience indicates whether that site is the origin of pain. It’s crucial to administer this injection with precision. That’s where imaging technology comes in.

Presently, computerized tomography (CT) scan or fluoroscopy are often used to help pinpoint diagnostic spinal injections, but ultrasound may be an alternative option because it doesn’t use radiation and can instantly illuminate sensitive soft tissue structures (like nerves).

How Does Ultrasound Compare to Other Spinal Imaging Tests?

Doctors have several imaging tools to choose from to help diagnose back and neck pain. X-ray, CT scanning, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning are the most commonly used imaging scans to diagnose spine pain, but ultrasound offers benefits that doctors and patients may consider.

Benefits of ultrasound over traditional spinal imaging methods include:

  • No radiation exposure (Note: MRI also does not use radiation)
  • Improved soft tissue imaging over radiographs
  • Simple to administer (patients don’t have to remain still)
  • Widely available
  • Inexpensive (though you should check your insurance coverage)
  • Non-invasive (no injections needed)

Despite these benefits, ultrasounds aren’t always the best imaging approach for spine pain. Ultrasonography can’t capture the clearest images of bone and nearby structures, including the inside of bone and joints—CT and MRI are better suited for this. However, ultrasound can be used when examining the bones of infants, as their bodies have more cartilage and less solid bone than older kids and adults.

How Do I Prepare for a Spinal Ultrasound?

Ultrasound is a relatively simple spinal imaging exam, so you don’t have to do anything special to prepare. However, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor or nurse about what clothing you should wear to the exam and whether you can eat and drink as normal before the sonogram.

Ultrasonography can last anywhere from under 30 minutes to up to an hour, depending on the size of the area being examined. A radiologist will review your ultrasound images and send a report to the treating physician or spine specialist who ordered the ultrasound. Your doctor will then share the results with you, which may help confirm a back or neck pain diagnosis or indicate the need for further testing to identify the root of your spine pain.

Updated on: 08/06/19
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