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It’s common to hear “sonogram” and “ultrasound” thrown around together. If you’re wondering how they’re different—sonogram vs ultrasound—you’re not alone.
The truth is that “sonogram” and “ultrasound” are closely related terms that both have to do with the same form of medical imaging technology. In many cases, people use them interchangeably. But technically, they’re not quite the same.
Sonogram vs ultrasound: what’s the difference?
Sonography is a form of medical imaging that uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of the insides of the human body. These images are called sonograms. On the other hand, ultrasound is the name for the high-frequency sound waves that are used to make the sonogram. In other words, ultrasound is the tool used during sonography (NIBIB, 2016).
If that’s confusing, think of a sonogram as a photograph. The ultrasound would be the camera that’s used to take the photograph.
Highly trained healthcare professionals who perform sonography are called sonographers or ultrasound technicians.
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The different types of sonography
Sonography is one of the most common types of diagnostic imaging and is often used to look at soft tissues and other non-bony parts of the body (NIBIB, 2016).
In some cases, a sonographer is specially trained to look at specific parts of the body. Some examples include:
- Abdominal sonography, which uses ultrasound to look at the abdominal cavities and organs, such as the liver, kidneys, spleen, or pancreas
- Breast sonography, which uses ultrasound to examine breast tissues
- Cardiac sonography, which uses ultrasound to look at the heart’s tissues, chambers, and valves
- Musculoskeletal sonography, which uses ultrasound to look at joints, tendons, and ligaments
- Pediatric sonography, which uses ultrasound to image children and infants
- Obstetric and gynecologic sonography, which uses ultrasound to look at the ovaries and other parts of the female reproductive system
How does ultrasound technology work?
Ultrasound technology uses high-frequency sound waves to make real-time images (sonograms) of the inside of your body (NIBIB, 2016).
If you’ve ever had an ultrasound, you may remember that it involves a handheld device that looks a lot like a grocery store checkout scanner. That’s called a transducer. It sends out sound waves, and it can also detect the echoes of those sound waves when they bounce (harmlessly) off of tissues and other barriers inside your body.
During an ultrasound procedure, a sonographer (a.k.a., ultrasound technician) will put gel on the part of your body that is going to be imaged. This is to keep any air bubbles or pockets from screwing up the transducer’s reception. As the transducer moves over your skin, the ultrasound equipment will turn the sound waves into images (Kurzweil, 2021).
There are two different types of ultrasound. These are (NIBIB, 2016):
- Diagnostic ultrasound: This is a type of ultrasound that medical professionals use to identify problems (or confirm that everything is in good shape).
- Functional ultrasound: This type of imaging test is used to create images of processes in your body. For example, medical professionals can use this type to monitor blood flow in your heart or vessels.
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What are the common uses of sonography?
Sonography and the ultrasound technology it uses are very common in medical settings. Some of the typical uses for sonography are (NIBIB, 2016):
- Fetal imaging during pregnancy
- Images of the heart or internal organs
- Blood vessel imaging
- Eye imaging
- Some types of brain imaging
- Breast or testicle imaging
- Abdominal organ imaging
- Cyst or tumor imaging
- Obstetric ultrasound
Medical conditions that ultrasound can diagnose
Sonographers can use ultrasound scans to identify a lot of different medical problems or abnormalities. These include (Zimmerman, 2021):
- Heart disease
- Testicle or prostate issues (Liguori, 2011)
- Childhood disorders such as spina bifida
- Appendicitis (Hwang, 2018)
- Brain hemorrhages
- Kidney stones
- Thyroid problems
Pros and cons of ultrasound imaging
Using ultrasound to make sonographic images is safe, affordable, and simple. It’s also typically a non-invasive procedure, meaning nothing goes inside your body. You usually don’t have to do anything to prepare for an ultrasound, and it creates images of your insides in real-time (SDMS, n.d.; NIBIB, 2016).
But there are some drawbacks. Ultrasound images don’t have the same level of specificity as some other types of medical imaging. Research has found that misdiagnoses can happen when doctors rely solely on ultrasound (Sotiriadis, 2019; Levine, 2001).
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Also, the images that ultrasound produces depend on the skill and experience of the ultrasound tech who uses it. This opens up some room for human error (Reddy, 2009).
It’s easy to confuse the terms “sonogram” and “ultrasound.” Even some doctors use them interchangeably. If you want to be precise, just remember that the ultrasound is the technology used to make an image, while the image itself is called a sonogram.
- Bianchi, S., Jacob, D., Lambert, A., & Draghi, F. (2017). Sonography of the Coracoid Process Region. Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine: Official Journal of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, 36(2), 375–388. doi: 10.7863/ultra.16.03074. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27943409/
- Hwang, M. E. (2018). Sonography and Computed Tomography in Diagnosing Acute Appendicitis. Radiologic Technology, 89(3), 224–237. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29298941/
- Kurzweil, A., & Martin, J. (2021). Transabdominal Ultrasound. [Updated Aug 13, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534813/
- Levine D. (2001). Ultrasound versus magnetic resonance imaging in fetal evaluation. Topics in Magnetic Resonance Imaging : TMRI, 12(1), 25–38. doi: 10.1097/00002142-200102000-00004. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11215713/
- Liguori, G., Bucci, S., Zordani, A., Benvenuto, S. (2011). Role of US in acute scrotal pain. World journal of urology, 29(5), 639–643. doi: 10.1007/s00345-011-0698-8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21607576/
- National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). (2016). Ultrasound. Retrieved September 8, 2021 from https://www.nibib.nih.gov/science-education/science-topics/ultrasound
- Reddy, U. M., Filly, R. A., Copel, J. A., & Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Department of Health and Human Services, NIH. (2008). Prenatal imaging: ultrasonography and magnetic resonance imaging. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 112(1), 145–157. doi: 10.1097/01.AOG.0000318871.95090.d9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2788813/
- Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS). (n.d.) Understanding Sonography. Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography. Retrieved online September 10, 2021 from https://www.sdms.org/resources/what-is-sonography/understanding-sonography
- Sotiriadis, A., & Odibo, A. O. (2019). Systematic error and cognitive bias in obstetric ultrasound. Ultrasound in obstetrics & gynecology : the official journal of the International Society of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 5(4), 431-435. doi: 10.1002/uog.20232. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30701628/
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.