Learning Resources

What is a Doppler ultrasound?

A Doppler ultrasound is a noninvasive test that can be used to estimate the blood flow through your blood vessels by bouncing high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) off circulating red blood cells. A regular ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images, but can't show blood flow.

A Doppler ultrasound may help diagnose many conditions, including:

Doppler ultrasound imaging

  • Blood clots
  • Poorly functioning valves in your leg veins, which can cause blood or other fluids to pool in your legs (venous insufficiency)
  • Heart valve defects and congenital heart disease
  • A blocked artery (arterial occlusion)
  • Decreased blood circulation into your legs (peripheral artery disease)
  • Bulging arteries (aneurysms)
  • Narrowing of an artery, such as in your neck (carotid artery stenosis)
  • A Doppler ultrasound can estimate how fast blood flows by measuring the rate of change in its pitch (frequency). During a Doppler ultrasound, a technician trained in ultrasound imaging (sonographer) presses a small hand-held device (transducer), about the size of a bar of soap, against your skin over the area of your body being examined, moving from one area to another as necessary.

This test may be done as an alternative to more-invasive procedures, such as angiography, which involves injecting dye into the blood vessels so that they show up clearly on X-ray images.

A Doppler ultrasound test may also help your doctor check for injuries to your arteries or to monitor certain treatments to your veins and arteries.

 

The three basic types of Doppler ultrasound are:

  1. "Bedside" or continuous wave Doppler. This type uses the change in pitch of the sound waves to provide information about blood flow through a blood vessel. The doctor listens to the sounds made by the transducer to assess the blood flow through an area that may be blocked or narrowed. This type of ultrasound can be done at the bedside in the hospital. It uses a portable machine that can quickly check the extent of blood vessel damage or disease.
  2. Duplex Doppler. This test uses standard ultrasound methods to make a picture of a blood vessel and the organs around it. A computer turns the Doppler sounds into a graph. This graph helps to show the speed and direction of blood flow through the blood vessel.
  3. Color Doppler. Color Doppler uses standard ultrasound methods to make a picture of a blood vessel. A computer changes the Doppler sounds into colors that are overlaid on the image of the blood vessel. These colors show the speed and direction of blood flow through the vessel. Power Doppler is a special type of color Doppler. Power Doppler can get some images that are hard or impossible to get using standard color Doppler. Power Doppler is most often used to look at blood flow through vessels within solid organs.

 

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