Use of Ultrasound as an Alternative to CT

Use of Ultrasound as an Alternative to CT

Deborah Levine, MD, FACR Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA

Ultrasound vs, CT

In light of concern over radiation dose in CT, it is helpful to remember that ultrasound is the imaging modality of choice for a number of abdominal, pelvic, and cardiovascular indications. Because ultrasound does not use ionizing radiation it is particularly useful in women of child-bearing age when CT would otherwise expose the patient to pelvic radiation. This is particularly important in pregnancy (see The Pregnant Patient: Alternatives to CT and Dose-Saving Modifications to CT Technique). The following document illustrates scenarios for using ultrasound instead of CT in non-pregnant patients.

Ultrasound Instead of CT in Assessment of Pelvic Pain

Since ovarian cysts, hemorrhagic cysts, ovarian torsion, ectopic pregnancy, and pelvic inflammatory disease are all common etiologies of pelvic pain in women of reproductive age and are also well evaluated by ultrasound, ultrasound is the imaging modality of choice for assessing women with acute pelvic pain (1). In addition to allowing for information regarding the uterus and adnexa in women, ultrasound can be used to assess the bowel (for example, for appendicitis (2)) and urinary tract (for example, for ureteral stones) in patients of both genders. Imaging of appendicitis is dependent on operator experience, with studies showing approximately 78% sensitivity and 83% specificity (3).

Ultrasound Instead of CT in Assessment of Abdominal Pain

ACR appropriateness criteria rank ultrasound highest as the modality for initial imaging in patients with right upper quadrant pain, acute pancreatitis, severe abdominal pain with elevated lipase (without fever), and acute abdominal pain with jaundice (4–6). Ultrasound is particularly helpful in detection of gallstones and biliary obstruction, as well as for the identification or exclusion of alternative diagnoses (7-10).

Ultrasound Instead of CT in Assessment of Blunt Abdominal Trauma

In unstable trauma patients, a Focused Assessment with Sonography for Trauma (FAST) scan can be used to assess for free fluid (11). This can quickly provide information that can support a decision to operate immediately, with the caveat that the false negative rate is at least 15% (12–16).

Ultrasound Instead of CT in Assessment of Clinically Suspected Adnexal Mass

Ultrasound is the imaging modality of choice in assessing clinically suspected pelvic masses (17). Ultrasound is used to determine the cystic or solid nature of the mass and to assess septations, solid elements, internal echogenicity, and vascularity that are used to predict if a mass is benign or malignant. These internal characteristics can be used to determine if an adnexal mass can be ignored, safely followed by ultrasound, or if surgery is warranted (18).

Ultrasound Instead of CT for Cardiovascular Imaging

When an asymptomatic patient has a pulsatile abdominal mass and aortic aneurysm is suspected, ultrasound is the initial imaging modality of choice (19). Population-based ultrasound screening studies have been recommended for male patients over the age of 65 (20). For abdominal aortic aneurysms between 3 and 5.5cm in diameter, periodic imaging (typically with ultrasound) at 6- to 12- month intervals (dependent on rate of aneurysm enlargement on prior studies) is recommended (19).

In patients with acute or chronic chest pain and in patients with dyspnea of suspected cardiac origin, ultrasound (with or without pharmacologic stress, with or without transesophageal echocardiography) can be used to assess abnormalities of ventricular wall motion, pericardial effusion, valve dysfunction, cardiac thrombus, and aortic pathology such as dissection (21–23).

In patients with acute chest pain and suspected pulmonary embolism, ultrasound of the lower extremity can be utilized to assess for deep venous thrombosis, to aid in triage of patients to therapy, no therapy, or additional imaging (24).

In patients with suspected bacterial endocarditis, transesophageal echocardiography is the clinical reference standard. It can demonstrate vegetations on cardiac valves, valvular regurgitation, and perivalvular abscess (25).

Assessment of the extracranial carotid arteries is typically performed with ultrasound rather than CT. A recent meta-analysis shows that ultrasound has a higher sensitivity (89%) than does CTA (77%) for 70–99% stenosis (26).


The descriptions above are common examples of using ultrasound where CT might be considered as an alternative imaging modality. There are of course many other indications for ultrasound. The prudent use of ultrasound will allow for appropriate patient care and diminish unnecessary exposure of patients to ionizing radiation from CT.


  1. Use of Ultrasound as an Alternative to CT;; Image Wisely,
  2. Acute Pelvic Pain in the Reproductive Age Group; ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2008.
  3. Right Lower Quadrant Pain — Suspected Appendicitis, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2010.
  4. Van Randen A., Bipat S., Zwinderman A.H., et al., “Acute Appendicitis: Meta-Analysis of Diagnostic Performance of CT and Graded Compression US Related to Prevalence of Disease,” Radiology, October 2008:249.
  5. Acute Pancreatitis, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2006.
  6. Acute Jaundice, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2008.
  7. Right Upper Quadrant Pain, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2010.
  8. Hanbidge A.E., Buckler P.M., O’Malley M.E., Wilson S.R., “From the RSNA Refresher Courses: Imaging Evaluation for Acute Pain in the Right Upper Quadrant,” Radiographics, July 2004:24.
  9. Bennett G.L., Balthazar E.J., “Ultrasound and CT Evaluation of Emergent Gallbladder Pathology,” Radiologic Clinics of North America, November 2003:41.
  10. Smith E.A., Dillman J.R., Elsayes K.M., et al., “Cross-Sectional Imaging of Acute and Chronic Gallbladder Inflammatory Disease,” American Journal of Roentgenology, January 2009:192(1).
  11. Laing F.C., Federle M.P., Jeffrey R.B., Brown T.W., “Ultrasonic Evaluation of Patients With Acute Right Upper Quadrant Pain,” Radiology, June 1981:140(2).
  12. Blunt Abdominal Trauma, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2008.
  13. Farahmand N., Sirlin C.B., Brown M.A., et al., “Hypotensive Patients With Blunt Abdominal Trauma: Performance of Screening US,” Radiology, May 2005:235.
  14. Kirkpatrick A.W., Sirois M., Laupland K.B., et al., “Prospective Evaluation of Hand-Held Focused Abdominal Sonography for Trauma (FAST) in Blunt Abdominal Trauma,” Canadian Journal of Surgery, December 2005:48.
  15. Ma O.J., Gaddis G., Steele M.T., et al., “Prospective Analysis of the Effect of Physician Experience With the FAST Examination in Reducing the Use of CT Scans,” Emergency Medicine Australasia, February 2005:17.
  16. McGahan J.P., Rose J., Coates T.L., et al., “Use of Ultrasonography in the Patient With Acute Abdominal Trauma,” Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine, October 1997:16.
  17. Nural M.S., Yardan T., Guven H., et al., “Diagnostic Value of Ultrasonography in the Evaluation of Blunt Abdominal Trauma,” Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology, March 2005:11.
  18. ACR Appropriateness Criteria®. Clinically Suspected Adnexal Mass, 2009.
  19. Levine D., Brown D.L., Andreotti R.F., et al., “Management of Asymptomatic Ovarian and Other Adnexal Cysts Imaged on Ultrasound: Society of Radiologists in Ultrasound Consensus Conference Statement,” Radiology, September 2010:256.
  20. Pulsatile Abdominal Mass, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2009.
  21. Fleming C., Whitlock E.P., Beil T.L., Lederle F.A., “Screening for Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm: A Best-Evidence Systematic Review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force,” Annals of Internal Medicine, February 2005:142.
  22. Acute Chest Pain — Suspected Aortic Dissection, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2008.
  23. Dyspnea — Suspected Cardiac Origin, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2010.
  24. Chest Pain, Suggestive of Acute Coronary Syndrome, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2010.
  25. Acute Chest Pain — Suspected Pulmonary Embolism, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2006.
  26. Suspected Bacterial Endocarditis, ACR Appropriateness Criteria®, American College of Radiology, 2006.
  27. Chappell F.M., Wardlaw J.M., Young G.R., et al., “Carotid Artery Stenosis: Accuracy of Noninvasive Tests–Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis,” Radiology, May 2009:251.


Benefits of Implementing Diagnostic Musculoskeletal Ultrasound at Your Practice

A physician sonographer performing musculoskeletal ultrasound of the wrist and forearm

Ultrasound is increasingly being used for musculoskeletal applications. Why is this the case and how can you and your patients benefit from this advancing modality? Read on to find out.

Used by practitioners in sports medicine, PM&R, rheumatology and orthopedics, musculoskeletal ultrasound is primarily used to diagnose pathology in tendons, nerves, muscles, ligaments and joints as well as to guide the needle in real-time during interventional procedures (Smith and Finnoff 64).

Advantages of using MSK Ultrasound Imaging

According to Smith and Finnoff, the advantages of using musculoskeletal ultrasound are:

• High-resolution soft tissue imaging
• Ability to image in real-time
• Facilitates dynamic examination of anatomic structures
• Can interact with the patient while imaging
• Minimally affected by metal artifact (ie, implants and hardware)
• Ability to guide procedures (eg, aspirations, injections)
• Enables rapid contralateral limb examination for comparison
• Portable
• Relatively inexpensive
• Lacks radiation
• No known contraindications

Comparisons of other diagnostic modalities with MSK Ultrasound Imaging

When compared to other modalities, ultrasound is clearly the more appropriate choice. In most instances, when compared to most magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies, ultrasound can deliver higher quality images, down to submillimeter detail of MSK parts (Kremkau 428).

In contrast with CT scans and X-rays, Smith and Finnoff state that musculoskeletal ultrasound can image soft tissue at higher resolutions allowing for safe and accurate needle injections and aspirations during interventional procedures. Moreover, the danger of radiation is absent when dealing with patients of child-bearing age (65).

In addition to its interventional uses, the scope in which ultrasound can be used for diagnostic applications is vast. Due to high image clarity as well as patient safety, ultrasound can help practitioners diagnose various forms of pathology including ligament and muscle sprains, joint effusions, tendon tears, tendinosis, and nerve entrapments (65).


Educational Resources for MSK Ultrasound Imaging

Gulfcoast Ultrasound Institute offers a complete line of musculoskeletal ultrasound educational DVDs as well as introductory and advanced hands-on ultrasound courses. We invite you to take advantage of these opportunities in this steadily emerging field.

Works Cited
Smith, Finnoff. “Diagnostic and Interventional Musculoskeletal Ultrasound: Part 1. Fundamentals” Journal of American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 1 (2009):64-75. Print.

Kremkau F. Diagnostic Ultrasound: Principles and Instruments. 6th ed.
Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders; 2002:428