Breast Ultrasound vs. Mammography: What is The Difference?

September 18, 2018

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Alicia Daniels, M.D. contributes to topics such as Women's Health, Cancer Care.

By Alicia Daniels, M.D.

Most women – no matter their age – are familiar with a mammography study. But there are occasions when your doctor might order a breast ultrasound instead of a mammography. So, what is the difference?

A breast ultrasound in a noninvasive (the skin is not pierced) procedure used to assess the breasts.  Ultrasound technology allows a quick visualization of the breast tissues.  Ultrasound may also be used to assess the blood flow to areas around the breasts.  The examination is often used along with mammography – but in some cases it is used alone.

Unlike mammography, breast ultrasound does not use radiation, and therefore poses no risk to pregnant women.  Not only may ultrasound be safely used during pregnancy, but is also useful to those have may have the presence of allergies to contrast dye.

Breast ultrasound is generally not used as a screening toll for breast cancer detection because it does not always detect some early signs of cancer such as micro calcifications, which are tiny calcium deposits.

Ultrasound may be used in women for whom radiation is contraindicated, such as pregnant women, women younger than 30 years, and women with silicone breast implants. The procedure may also be used to guide interventional procedures such as needle localization during breast biopsies and cyst aspiration (removal of fluid from cyst).

Breast ultrasound uses a handheld probe called a transducer that sends out ultrasonic sound waves at a frequency too high to be heard.  When the transducer is placed on the breast at certain locations and angles, the ultrasonic waves move through the skin and other breast tissues.  The sound waves bounce off the tissues like an echo and return to the transducer.  The transducer picks up the reflected waves, which are then converted into an electronic picture of the breasts.

During the procedure you will be asked to remove any jewelry and clothing from the waist up and will be given a gown to wear.  You will like on your back on an examination table and raise your arm above your head on the side of the breast to be examined. Alternatively, you may be positioned on your side.  A conductive paste or gel will be applied to the breast and a hand-held transducer will be placed directly on the skin overlying the breast.  After the procedure is completed, the gel will be removed from the breast.

Generally, there is no special care following a breast ultrasound.  However, your physician may give you additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.

Alicia Daniels, M.D., is a diagnostic radiologist and is affiliated with Hackensack Meridian Health. Dr. Daniels practices at Coastal Imaging in Toms River, NJ. To make an appointment with Dr. Daniels, call 732-678-0087.

The material provided through Health Hub is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.