Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School
Ultrasound uses sound waves instead of radiation to generate snapshots or moving pictures of structures inside the body. This imaging technique works in a manner similar to radar and sonar, developed in World War II to detect airplanes, missiles, and submarines that were otherwise invisible. After coating a small area of your skin with a lubricant to reduce friction, a radiologist or ultrasound technician places an ultrasound transducer, which looks like a microphone, on your skin and may rub it back and forth to get the right view. The transducer sends sound waves into your body and picks up the echoes of the sound waves as they bounce off internal organs and tissue. A computer transforms these echoes into an image that is displayed on a monitor.
Doppler ultrasound is a variation of this technique that not only shows internal structures but also examines the flow of blood through blood vessels. Using the Doppler effect—the change in the frequency of sound or light waves as they bounce off a moving object—this kind of ultrasound produces an image of blood in motion.
A Carotid ultrasound shows the amount of blood flow in the carotid arteries, the major blood vessels to the brain located on either side of your neck. With this imaging technique, your doctor can see if there is any narrowing of your carotid arteries because of cholesterol deposits or some other problem. This test is often used to evaluate people who have had a stroke or who might be at high risk for one because of reduced blood flow in the carotid arteries.