A liver ultrasound is a noninvasive test that produces images of a person’s liver and its blood vessels. A liver ultrasound can help diagnose various conditions that affect the liver, such as fatty liver and gallstones.

A liver ultrasound is a type of transabdominal ultrasound. This means a technician scans the abdomen using a device that resembles a microphone. The process uses sound waves to create digital images.

Liver ultrasounds are safe and usually do not take long. However, some people may feel anxious about having a liver ultrasound because of concerns about what the test might reveal.

Read on to learn more about liver ultrasound, including what people can expect to happen before and after the scan, and what the results can indicate.

man having an ultrasound testShare on Pinterest
NoSystem images/Getty Images

A doctor may recommend a liver ultrasound as a preliminary test to view the liver if a person has symptoms of liver disease. These include jaundice or pain in the upper right portion of the stomach.

It is a good screening tool for various liver conditions, such as hepatitis, cancer, and cirrhosis. A doctor may also recommend a liver ultrasound if a person has high liver enzymes on a blood test.

Doctors can use them to look at blood vessels that supply the liver and check the blood flow is as it should be.

Learn more about how ultrasound scans work here.

There are almost no significant risks associated with liver ultrasounds.

This test is noninvasive and there are no absolute contraindications to it, meaning nearly anyone can have one. However, doctors generally recommend avoiding the use of pulsed Doppler techniques directly over the fetus if a person is pregnant.

People who have other tests along with ultrasound may have side effects. For example, injecting contrast dye may be painful, and in very rare cases a person might have an allergic reaction to the dye.

Liver ultrasounds do not always require preparation. Because they are low risk and noninvasive, a person does not need pain relief medication, clearance from a doctor, or anesthesia.

However, a doctor may require a person to fast before the scan for some ultrasounds, especially of the gallbladder and liver. This is because fasting can cause the gallbladder to swell, making it easier to see.

Doctors may combine a liver ultrasound with other techniques to get a more accurate image and diagnose potential issues. Some common types of liver ultrasound scans include:

  • Contrast imaging: This involves injecting dye into the blood vessels to make it easier to see the liver and its vessels. It can be especially helpful for diagnosing growths and lesions on the liver and detecting liver cancer.
  • Elastography: This is a technique to see how stiff the liver tissue is, which could signal cirrhosis or another problem. It involves delivering a series of pulses to the liver to see the liver tissue. A doctor may compare elastography scores over time to detect changes in liver health.
  • Combined techniques: A doctor may combine techniques, such as by doing an ultrasound and an MRI scan.

A liver ultrasound requires a person’s abdomen to be accessible. They may wear a hospital gown or lift up their shirt. People who do not want to expose the lower half of their body can consider wearing separates rather than a dress, or wearing shorts under a hospital gown. Alternatively, they may ask for a sheet to cover the lower half of the body.

During the scan, a person lies on an elevated table while a sonographer rubs a transducer on the abdomen. The transducer is a small handheld device that looks like a microphone. It sends images to a computer. A person may be able to see the images in real time.

A sonographer may also check the gallbladder during the scan. Both organs are in the upper right portion of the stomach, near the ribs.

Some people may feel pressure during the test or feel anxious about the results. However, a liver ultrasound should not hurt. The ultrasonographer may use a cold gel but will typically try to warm it up for the person’s comfort.

The scan usually takes only a few minutes.

A liver ultrasound requires no recovery time. A person can eat, drink, drive, and return to work or school after the ultrasound.

Getting the results

A sonographer usually performs the ultrasound. While the images will be available immediately, sonographers cannot usually interpret them or give a person the results. Instead, a person will need to talk with their doctor.

In some cases a doctor might give a person their results right away, or this may take a few days.

A new federal law in the United States requires the immediate release of a person’s medical records to their online charts. Therefore, a person may be able to view results in an online portal before talking with a doctor.

Based on the results, a doctor may recommend additional tests or work with the person to develop a treatment plan.

Learn more about different liver scans here.

A healthy liver does not show significant fat deposits, scarring, or lesions. A doctor may also check for blockages in various ducts and examine the gallbladder for signs of inflammation or gallstones.

Some atypical findings include:

  • fatty deposits in the liver, which may suggest fatty liver disease
  • scarring or hardening of the liver, which may suggest cirrhosis
  • masses or lesions, which may indicate an infection or cancer
  • signs of hepatitis, such as liver inflammation

Doctors may look at the texture of the liver and look for areas that appear brighter on the scan.

The diagnosis a person with atypical findings on a liver ultrasound may receive will depend on the findings. In some cases, a person might need additional tests. For example, doctors can use a liver biopsy to test whether a growth or lesion on the liver is cancer.

In other cases, an ultrasound alone may diagnose the problem. For instance, if a person has gallbladder pain and a sonographer sees gallstones or a blockage, this may mean that the gallbladder needs surgical removal.

A liver ultrasound may indicate structural changes consistent with the presence of certain conditions, including:

Often, doctors will need to use a range of diagnostic tools to definitively identify the reason for these changes. This process may include a medical history, physical exam, blood tests, and potentially a biopsy.

Having a liver ultrasound may cause a person anxiety if they feel worried about the health of their liver. However, the ultrasound itself is neither dangerous nor painful.

Doctors can advise people whether they need to do anything to prepare for the test and what they should expect after the ultrasound. It may also be helpful to know whether the ultrasound alone can diagnose a person’s liver issue or if they will require additional tests.