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Transabdominal ultrasonography of the small and large intestine

Christoph F Dietrich, MD, MBA
Section Editor
John R Saltzman, MD, FACP, FACG, FASGE, AGAF
Deputy Editor
Anne C Travis, MD, MSc, FACG, AGAF


Transabdominal ultrasonography is most commonly used to obtain images of hepatobiliary, urogenital, and pelvic structures. Its utility for imaging the alimentary gastrointestinal tract is less well established, principally because of technical difficulties in obtaining quality images of these regions. However, improvements in ultrasound technology and increasing familiarity with ultrasonographic findings in a variety of gastrointestinal disorders are broadening its applications.

An advantage of ultrasound imaging compared with endoscopy and contrast radiography is that it permits evaluation of the transmural aspects of inflammatory or neoplastic pathology within its surrounding structures [1]. This can provide an important contribution for diagnosis and monitoring of disease activity. Other advantages are that it is widely available, noninvasive, can be performed without preparation, and lacks radiation exposure (which may be particularly desirable in patients such as pregnant women).

On the other hand, important limitations of ultrasonography are that the alimentary tract cannot be visualized over its entire length, many of the findings are nonspecific, and obtaining and interpreting the images is highly operator-dependent. Furthermore, ultrasound is far less useful in obese patients in whom high-frequency scanning may not be possible.

This topic review will provide an overview of transabdominal ultrasonography of the small and large bowel, while summarizing its use in a variety of gastrointestinal disorders. Ultrasonography for the evaluation of the hepatobiliary tract is discussed elsewhere. (See "Ultrasonography of the hepatobiliary tract".)


Imaging of the alimentary tract requires high-frequency (5 to 17 MHz), high-resolution linear or convex array transducers, a great deal of scanning experience, and patience. The standardized evaluation should optimally take place preprandially since images from filled intestines can be difficult to interpret, particularly when motility is being evaluated. On the other hand, under emergency conditions, such as ileus (eg, due to obstruction, an incarcerated hernia, or intussusception), appendicitis, or diverticulitis, the exam may be performed postprandially.


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