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Ultrasound: Benefits and Disadvantages

Benefits of ultrasound:

  • Can detect lesions in women with dense breasts when mammograms cannot.(1)
  • Can help identify the nature of a lesion that is unclear from a mammogram.(1)
  • Widely available, and less expensive than a mammogram.(2)
  • The only way to tell the difference between a cyst and a solid mass without using a needle to draw out fluid (non-invasive).(2)
  • Patient is never exposed to radiation during an ultrasound, allowing pregnant women to use this imaging technique.(3)
  • Can use ultrasound to detect blood flow through vessels.(4)
  • Most ultrasound exams are quick and painless.(4)
  • Ultrasounds do not cause any health problems, and there are no known harmful effects to humans.(4)

Disadvantages of ultrasound:

  • Ultrasound results may identify a potential area of concern that is not malignant. These false-positive results could lead to more procedures, including biopsies, that are not necessary (1).  Preliminary data from a trial being conducted showed that there was a higher rate of false-positive results with ultrasounds than with mammography (2.4%-12.9% for ultrasound and 0.7%-6% for mammography).(5)
  • Although ultrasound is often used in an attempt to prevent an invasive measure for diagnosis, sometimes it is unable to determine whether or not a mass is malignant, and a biopsy will be recommended.(1)
  • Many cancers cannot be detected via an ultrasound.(1)
  • Calcifications that are visible on mammograms are not visible on ultrasound scans, thereby preventing early diagnosis of the portion of breast cancers that begin with calcifications.(6)
  • Ultrasounds are not available everywhere, and not all insurance plans cover them.(1)
  • An ultrasound requires a highly experienced and skilled operator to detect a malignant lump, as well as good equipment. If the cancerous tissue is not detected at the time of the scan, it will not be caught as early as possible.  The ACR-accredited facilities database is a good way to determine the expertise of a facility in ultrasound imaging.(5) (1)
References for this page:
  1. "Breast Ultrasound" Radiology Info (07-10-2007) [http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?PG=breastus]
  2. "If Breast Cancer is Suspected. American Cancer Society (8-03-2010). [http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/UnderstandingYourDiagnosis/ExamsandTestDescriptions/ForWomenFacingaBreastBiopsy/breast-biopsy-mammograms]
  3. "Mammograms and Other Breast Imaging Procedures." American Cancer Society (08-03-2010) [http://www.cancer.org/Healthy/FindCancerEarly/ExamandTestDescriptions/MammogramsandOtherBreastImagingProcedures/index?sitearea=PED]
  4. "Ultrasound- General." Radiology Info (07-10-2007) [http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=genus&bhcp=1]
  5. Elmore JG et al. "Screening for Breast Cancer." JAMA (2005). 293: 1245-1256. [PUBMED]
  6. "Ultrasound." Breastcancer.org (07-10-2007) [http://www.breastcancer.org/testing_ultrasound.html]
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