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Doppler ultrasound exam of an arm or leg

This test uses ultrasound  to look at the blood flow in the large arteries and veins in the arms and legs.

How the Test is Performed

The test is done in the ultrasound or radiology department or in a peripheral vascular lab.

During the exam:

  • A water-soluble gel is placed on a handheld device called a transducer. This device directs high-frequency sound waves to the artery or veins being tested.
  • Blood pressure cuffs may be put around different parts of the body, including the thigh, calf, ankle, and different points along the arm.
  • A paste is applied to the skin over the arteries being examined. Images are created as the transducer is moved over each area.

How to Prepare for the Test

You will need to remove clothes from the arm or leg being examined.

How the Test will Feel

Sometimes the person performing the test will need to press on the vein to make sure it does not have a clot. Some people may feel slight pain.

Why the Test is Performed

This test is done as the first step to look at arteries and veins. Sometimes arteriography and venography may be needed later. The test is done to help diagnose:

The test may also be used to:

  • Look at injury to the arteries
  • Monitor arterial reconstruction and bypass grafts

Normal Results

A normal result means the blood vessels show no signs of narrowing, clots, or closure, and the arteries have normal blood flow.

What Abnormal Results Mean

Abnormal results may be due to:

  • Blockage in an artery by a blood clot, piece of fat, or air bubble
  • Blood clot in an artery or vein
  • Narrowing or widening of an artery
  • Spastic arterial disease (arterial contractions brought on by cold or emotion)
  • Venous occlusion (closing of vein)

This test may also be done to help assess the following conditions:

Risks

There are no risks from this procedure.

Considerations

Cigarette smoking may alter the results of this test. Nicotine can cause the arteries in the extremities to constrict.

Quitting smoking lowers the risk of problems with the heart and circulatory system. Most smoking-related deaths are caused by cardiovascular problems, not lung cancer.

References

Fowler GC, Reddy B. Noninvasive Venous and Arterial Studies of the Lower Extremities. In: Pfenninger JL, Fowler GC, eds. Pfenninger & Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2011:chap 88.

Updated: 4/7/2014

Jason Levy, MD, Northside Radiology Associates, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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