The Differences Between Mammograms & Ultrasounds

The Differences Between Mammograms & Ultrasounds
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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to focus on breast health and early detection,” says Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health. 

“Mammograms and ultrasounds are two important diagnostic tools in breast health, but they serve different purposes.”

Introduction: The Importance of Breast Health

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women worldwide. Early identification is crucial for effective treatment and higher survival rates. 

Mammograms and ultrasounds are two diagnostic procedures that play essential roles in breast health. Let’s break down these tests and understand their differences.

What is a Mammogram?

A mammogram is an X-ray image of the breast tissue. It’s a screening tool primarily used for breast cancer detection in asymptomatic women or as a follow-up when there are breast concerns.

During a mammogram, the breast is gently compressed between two flat plates to spread the breast tissue evenly. Then, low-dose x-rays are directed through the breast tissue to create detailed images that can reveal abnormalities, such as tumours or microcalcifications (small spots (of calcium in the breasts).

When Should You Get a Mammogram?

Screening Mammograms: These are typically recommended for women in their 40s or 50s, depending on guidelines and individual risk factors. They are repeated every one to two years.

Diagnostic Mammograms: These are performed when there are breast symptoms, such as lumps, pain, or changes in breast tissue. They provide a more detailed view than screening mammograms.

Pros of Mammograms

Effective for Detecting Calcifications: Mammograms are excellent at detecting calcifications in the breast, which can be an early sign of breast cancer.

Wide Availability: Mammography is widely available in most healthcare facilities.

Cons of Mammograms

Discomfort: Some women find mammograms uncomfortable due to the breast compression required during the procedure.

Radiation Exposure: Although minimal, radiation exposure is still a consideration, especially for young women or those with a high risk of breast cancer.

What is an Ultrasound?

Breast ultrasound, also known as sonography, uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of the breast tissue. It’s a non-invasive procedure often used to investigate breast abnormalities detected through physical examination or mammography.

A gel is applied to the breast, and a handheld device called a transducer is moved on the skin. The transducer sends sound waves that make pictures on a screen by bouncing off breast tissue. Unlike mammograms, ultrasounds don’t use radiation.

When Should You Get a Breast Ultrasound?

To Further Evaluate Abnormalities: Breast ultrasounds are often used as a follow-up to mammography when there are areas of concern, such as lumps or suspicious findings.

For Younger Women: Ultrasounds may be preferred for breast evaluation in younger women, 

especially those with dense breast tissue (ultrasounds can provide more visible images).

Pros of Breast Ultrasound

No Radiation Exposure: Ultrasound is radiation-free and safe for all individuals, including pregnant or nursing women.

Good for Dense Breasts: Ultrasounds can be particularly useful for women with dense breast tissue, as they provide clear images.

Cons of Breast Ultrasound

Limited for Early Detection: Ultrasounds are not typically used as a standalone screening tool for breast cancer because they may not detect small calcifications effectively.

Operator-Dependent: The quality of the ultrasound images can vary depending on the operator’s skill and experience.

Which Is Right for You?

The choice between a mammogram and an ultrasound depends on various factors, including your age, breast density, and any specific breast concerns you may have. 

Some guidelines to consider:

 Age: If you’re in your 40s or older and have no breast symptoms, a screening mammogram is generally recommended every one to two years. This is the primary tool for early breast cancer detection.

Breast Density: If you have dense breast tissue, which can make mammogram results less clear, your healthcare provider may recommend an ultrasound as an additional test to provide more information.

Breast Symptoms: If you notice changes in your breast, such as lumps, pain, or skin changes, consult your healthcare provider. Depending on your symptoms and findings, they may recommend a diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound, or both.

Risk Factors: If you have a family history of breast cancer or other risk factors, your doctor may advise you to undergo more regular or specialised examinations.

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