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What is a Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg? 

A Doppler ultrasound test uses high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) that reflect on the red blood cells to determine the flow of blood in blood vessels. By measuring the rate at which the frequency of ultrasound changes, it can also determine the speed at which blood is flowing in the body. It is a non-invasive test. Doppler ultrasound can help diagnose multiple conditions, including blood clots or heart valve defects.

This test can be an alternative to the more invasive tests like angiography, which involves the injection of a dye in the patient's blood vessels for clear visibility on passing x-rays.

A Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg checks the blood flow through the blood vessels of the arms and legs.

A Doppler ultrasound can be of two types:

  • Arterial Doppler ultrasound: It detects the blood flow through arteries in the arms and legs, where any blockage could lead to peripheral vascular disease. 
  • Venous Doppler ultrasound: It looks at the blood flow through the veins in the arms and legs and checks for clots in the extremities.
  1. Who cannot have a Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg?
  2. Why is a Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg done?
  3. How should one prepare for a Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg?
  4. What is the procedure for a Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg?
  5. How does a Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg feel?
  6. What do the results of a Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg mean?
  7. What are the risks and benefits of a Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg?
  8. What happens after a doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg?
  9. What other tests can be done with a doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg?
Doctors for Doppler ultrasound of the arm or leg

There are no contraindications for this test, meaning that anyone can get this test done.

Your doctor may order this test if you have symptoms that indicate that you have reduced blood flow in your arteries and/or veins. Some conditions that can reduce blood flow are:

  • Blockage in an artery such as due to a blood clot 
  • Injury to blood vessels

Doctors also suggest this test if you show signs of the following conditions:

  • Arteriosclerosis: A condition in which arteries supplying blood to the arms and legs become narrow and hard
  • Deep vein thrombosis: A condition that occurs when a blood clot is formed in a vein deep inside your body (commonly seen in the leg and pelvic region)
  • Thromboangiitis obliterans: A condition in which the blood vessels in limbs get inflamed and swollen
  • Superficial thrombophlebitis: An inflammation caused due to the formation of a blood clot in veins just under the skin surface
  • Vascular tumours in arms and legs

Additionally, a Doppler ultrasound can be performed to determine the blood pressure in arteries, to monitor the healing of arteries post-cardiac bypass grafting surgery and to assess injuries in arteries.

You do not need to prepare for this test. Smoking can affect the test results as it narrows the blood vessels; therefore, you should stop smoking for a few hours before the test if you smoke.

You will be given a hospital gown to wear before the procedure. The arm or leg to be examined should be free of clothing and jewellery. The procedure of an ultrasound is as follows:

  • You will be asked to lie down on the examination table and blood pressure cuffs will be placed on different parts of your limbs to compare the blood pressure in these regions. 
  • Your doctor will apply a water-soluble gel on a transducer (a handheld device that emits ultrasound waves into the blood vessels) and place the transducer on the limb to be tested. It is then moved to cover the area to be examined.
  • An attached computer will prepare graphs and images for the blood flow in the region based on the data received from the sound waves.

The arterial Doppler ultrasound requires about half an hour for each arm or leg, whereas the venous Doppler ultrasound requires 20 minutes per arm or leg.

You will feel little to no discomfort during the test.

The arterial Doppler ultrasound is painless. However, during the venous Doppler ultrasound, the technician may press on a vein to determine if there is a clot. It may cause a bit of discomfort if the area is already tender.

Also, if you hear a “whoosh” sound during the test, don’t get alarmed as it is just an indication that the transducer is detecting the flow of blood.

Abnormal results on this test may indicate the presence of any of the below-mentioned conditions:

  • Block in an artificial bypass graft
  • Spastic arterial disease, in which stress or cold weather can lead to a contraction of the artery
  • Narrowing or widening of arteries
  • Damaged blood vessels that can cause poor circulation
  • Blood clots in blood vessels
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Arterial blockage due to cholesterol build-up
  • Superficial thrombophlebitis
  • Arteriosclerosis in limbs
  • Vascular tumours in arms and legs
  • Closing of veins (venous occlusion)
  • Thromboangiitis obliterans

This test has no known risks and the following benefits of a doppler ultrasound of the arm and leg:

  • No radiation is used
  • It is non-invasive and can replace some invasive procedures
  • It is generally painless

You can continue with your routine as usual and do not need to take any special precautions unless specified by your doctor.

Depending on the condition diagnosed, your doctor may order other tests. For example, in the case of deep vein thrombosis, they may ask for a venography, MRI or CT scan.

Disclaimer: All results must be clinically correlated with the patient’s complaints to make a complete and accurate diagnosis. The above information is provided from a purely educational point of view and is in no way a substitute for medical advice by a qualified doctor.

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