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Elastography is a diagnostic imaging procedure similar to ultrasound imaging that helps doctors differentiate between malignant tumors and normal body tissue. It is a relatively new development in medicine, and its full potential is yet to be developed. Since the 1990s, elastography has been utilized to detect the presence of cancerous tumors in breast tissue and elsewhere in the body. The test is typically administered by a radiologist or a trained medical technician in a hospital or outpatient imaging center.
In almost all cases, malignant tumors are harder, or less elastic, than benign masses and other types of tissue in the body. Elastography is effective because it can clearly distinguish between elastic tissue and stiff cancerous lumps. When imaging scans reveal darker, harder spots among a lighter, flexible background, it is very likely to be indicative of a tumor. Advances in ultrasonic technology are making it possible for doctors to make confident diagnoses without the need for invasive tissue biopsies.
Two sets of images are taken to help doctors locate cancer. The first is basically a standard ultrasound screen, during which high-intensity sound waves are sent through the body and echoed back to the machine. After getting a base reading, a technician manually or mechanically compresses the suspicious area and repeats the scan. By squeezing tissue, the differences between elastic and nonelastic lumps become clear. The two sets of scans are compared to accurately identify the size and exact location of a cancerous mass.
Elastography procedures for breast cancer detection can usually be performed on an outpatient basis in less than an hour. A patient is usually asked to sit in a chair or lie down while base scans are performed with hand-held paddles. For the second test, a woman may need to sit or stand while a machine gently applies pressure to the top and bottom of the breast. Images can usually be viewed in real-time on a computer monitor, though patients generally need to wait a few hours or days to hear the results to give radiologists time to carefully review the pictures.
Doctors and medical researchers are excited about the future potential of elastography in the diagnosis of cancer and other conditions. Clinical trials show great promise in the test's ability to reveal abnormalities in cardiac muscle, scarring in liver tissue, and damage or obstructions in the kidneys. It is very possible that elastography and other modern diagnostic imaging techniques will eventually make biopsies and dangerous exploratory surgeries obsolete.
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