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Ultrasound Imaging

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Ultrasound Imaging

Ultrasound imaging is a method that examines tissues and organs within the body using high-energy sound waves.

Ultrasound is defined as any sound with a frequency of more than 20,000 Hertz (or 20 kilohertz). This is above the maximum audible frequency.

Ultrasound, like any wave, has features such as frequency and intensity. The accuracy of the detail that an ultrasound can detect is limited by its wavelength.

The wavelength is the distance between a wave’s consecutive crests and is inversely proportional to the frequency of the wave.

So, why is the wavelength important? It’s important because we can’t observe details that are smaller than the wavelength of the wave used to probe an area. A great example of this is us not being able to see individual atoms with visible light because atoms are much smaller compared to the wavelength of light.

Ultrasound imaging Schematic diagram of sound waves StudySmarterSchematic diagram of sound waves, Oğulcan Tezcan – StudySmarter Originals

Ultrasound imaging definition

Ultrasound imaging (sonography) is a technology that uses high-frequency sound waves to examine the inside of a body.

Because ultrasound images are captured in real-time, they can reveal internal organ movement and blood flow through blood vessels. Pictures are created when sound waves are sent into the body and reflected back to a scanner.

Calculating depth with ultrasound imaging

How deep can ultrasound imaging scan? It depends on the frequency of the wave.

For example, a frequency (f) of 7 megahertz (MHz) is commonly used for abdominal scans. If the speed of sound in tissue (vw) is around 1540m/s, we can calculate the wavelength (λ) of the ultrasound as follows (don’t forget your conversions!):

The prevailing assumption is that ultrasound imaging can scan tissue to a depth of roughly 500λ. That is 500 ⋅ 0.22mm = 0.11m for 7MHz.
  • Lower frequencies can scan larger depths in the body but with less resolution.
  • Higher frequencies can produce better resolution but have a restricted scanning depth.

The physics of ultrasound imaging

A transducer a crystal that exhibits the piezoelectric effect – emits ultrasonic waves in ultrasound imaging. The piezoelectric effect occurs when a voltage is applied across a material. This material expands and contracts, causing the crystal to vibrate.

Any tissue in touch with the transducer receives these high-frequency vibrations. Similarly, applying pressure to the crystal (in the form of a wave reflected off tissue layers) produces a voltage. As a result, the crystal functions as both a sound transmitter and receiver.

Ultrasound is absorbed by tissue in its pathway. The duration between the transmission of the initial signal and the reflections received from different barriers between mediums is used to determine the type and location of each boundary between tissues and organs.

Ultrasound imaging An ultrasound technician StudySmarterAn ultrasound technician, unsplash.com

The colours in ultrasound imaging

How do the black, white, and grey colours occur in ultrasound imaging? This happens via a characteristic called the acoustic impedance Z (measured in kg/m2⋅s). Here is the equation:

Here, p is the density of the medium in kg/m3, and v is the speed of the sound through the medium in m/s.

The table below shows the density, acoustic impedance, and speed of sound through various mediums.

Medium
Density [kg/m3]
Speed of ultrasound [m/s]
Acoustic impedance [kg/m2⋅s]
Air
1.3
330
429
Water
1000
1500
1.5 ⋅ 106
Blood
1060
1570
1.66 ⋅ 106
Fat
925
1450
1.34 ⋅ 106
Muscle (average)
1075
1590
1.7 ⋅ 106
Bone
1400 - 1900
4080
5.7 ⋅ 106 to 7.8 ⋅ 106

The intensity reflection coefficient (a) is the ratio of the reflected wave’s intensity to the incident (transmitted) wave’s intensity. We can express this mathematically as follows:

Z1 and Z2 are the acoustic impedances of the two mediums making up the boundary (the border between two different tissues). We can use the intensity reflection coefficient to determine the reflection’s intensity:

  • If it equals zero (mediums with the same acoustic impedance), there will be no reflection.
  • If this value increases, the intensity of the reflection also increases, and the image will be closer to white.
  • If the ultrasound wave doesn’t come up against a medium with a different acoustic impedance, it doesn’t reflect back, and there is no echo. As a result, the image on the screen will be black.
  • When the ultrasound wave comes across a medium with a different acoustic impedance, the ultrasound picture will be white or grey depending on the strength of the reflection.

Unlike X-rays or CT scans, ultrasound imaging cannot identify tissue density. Instead, it looks for sonotransmission (the passage or reflection of sound).

Check out our explanations on Diagnostic X-Rays and CT Scanners.

What are the applications of ultrasound imaging?

Ultrasound is used in various applications, including burglar alarms, cleaning sensitive objects, and bat navigation systems. In medicine, it is widely used for diagnosis and therapy. The following table shows common ultrasound imaging procedures in medical physics.

Ultrasound imaging procedurePurpose
Abdominal ultrasoundVisualise abdominal tissues and organs.
Bone sonometryAssess bone fragility.
EchocardiogramView the heart.
Doppler ultrasound Visualise blood flow through a blood vessel and organs.
Doppler foetal heart rate monitorsListen to the foetal heartbeat
Foetal ultrasound View the foetus in pregnancy.
Ultrasound-guided biopsiesCollect a sample of tissue.
Ophthalmic ultrasoundVisualise ocular structures.

Ultrasound Imaging - Key takeaways

  • Ultrasound imaging is a method that examines tissues and organs in the body using high-energy sound waves.
  • Ultrasound is defined as any sound with a frequency of more than 20,000Hz (or 20kHz).
  • The accuracy of the detail that an ultrasound can detect is limited by its wavelength.
  • Depending on the strength of the reflection, an ultrasound will be grey for low reflections and white for high reflections.
  • The acoustic impedance (Z) of tissue is a physical characteristic. Different tissues have different acoustic impedances.
  • Ultrasound is widely used in medical physics, particularly for diagnosis and therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ultrasound Imaging

Ultrasound imaging is used in a wide range of applications, including burglar alarms, cleaning sensitive objects, and bat navigation systems. However, it is most commonly used in medical fields for both diagnosis and therapy.

The diagnostic ultrasound, also known as a sonography test, converts reflected sound energy into pictures using the Doppler effect or echoes.


Ultrasound imaging is a method that examines tissues and organs within the body using high-energy sound waves.

Final Ultrasound Imaging Quiz

Question

At which range of frequencies are sound waves accepted as ultrasound?

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Answer

f > 20kHz

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Question

Which of the following is true?

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Answer

You can’t observe details that are smaller than the wavelength of your probe.

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Question

Which of the following is not one of the applications of ultrasound imaging?


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Answer

Whole-body imager.

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Question

When the ultrasound doesn’t come up against a medium with a different acoustic impedance, what colour will appear on the screen?


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Answer

Black.

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Question

Which of the following does ultrasound imaging identify?


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Answer

Sonotransmission.  

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Question

What is the name of sound waves with a frequency of 20Hz or less?


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Answer

Infrasound.

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Question

Which range of sound wave frequencies can a human hear?


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Answer

Between 20Hz to 20kHz.

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Question

Is ultrasound imaging captured in real-time?


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Answer

 Yes, ultrasound imaging is captured in real-time. 

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Question

Which formula is used to find the acoustic impedance of a medium?


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Answer

 Z = · v

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Question

What is the name of sound waves with a frequency of 20kHz or more?


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Answer

Ultrasound.

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Question

Can ultrasound imaging reveal both internal organ movement and blood flow through blood vessels?


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Answer

Yes, ultrasound imaging can reveal both internal organ movement and blood flow through blood vessels.

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Question

What is the symbol used to describe frequency?


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Answer

 f

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Question

What is the symbol used to describe acoustic impedance?


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Answer

Z

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Question

Does ultrasound imaging identify tissue density?


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Answer

 No, ultrasound imaging can’t identify tissue density. 

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Question

What is the medical name for ultrasound imaging?


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Answer

Sonography.

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