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Vascular Studies

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Vascular Studies

What are vascular studies?

Vascular studies are noninvasive tests that check the blood flow in your arteries and veins.

Many of these studies use high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) to assess the blood flow in your vessels. A small handheld probe (transducer) is pressed against your skin. The sound waves move through your skin and other body tissues to the blood vessels. The sound waves echo off the blood cells. These echoes are then sent to a computer and seen on a screen as images or video.

Why might I need a vascular study?

A vascular study may be done to:

  • Check signs and symptoms that may mean you have decreased blood flow in arteries or veins in your neck, legs, or arms
  • Assess procedures you have had done before to restore blood flow to an area
  • Assess a vascular dialysis device (such as an A-V fistula in the arm)

There may be other reasons for your doctor to recommend a vascular study.

Health problems that may cause decreased blood flow in arteries or veins include:

  • Atherosclerosis. A slow clogging of the arteries over many years by fatty materials (plaque) and other substances in the blood stream.
  • Aneurysm. An enlargement (dilation) of a blood vessel that may cause weakening of the blood vessel wall.
  • Thrombus or embolus. A blood clot that moves through the blood vessels.
  • Varicose veins. Large, bulging veins in the leg. They occur when valves in the leg veins don’t work well, allowing blood to collect in the lower leg.

Symptoms that may occur when blood flow decreases to your legs include:

  • Leg pain or weakness during exertion (claudication)
  • Swelling
  • Soreness, tenderness, redness, or warmth in the leg
  • Pale and cool skin, may even be a grayish or blue color
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Foot pain that occurs when sitting or lying down, and is relieved by standing (rest pain)

If your provider thinks you may have decreased blood flow in your arms, legs, or neck, then vascular studies may be done.

Types of vascular studies

There are different types of vascular studies. The tests that you have will depend on your symptoms and what your provider thinks your vascular problem may be. Types of vascular studies include:

Venous Doppler – usually performed to check for blood clots but can also check for refluxing valves that may cause varicose veins.

Carotid Doppler – usually performed to check the carotid arteries in your neck.

Aorta Doppler – usually performed to diagnose or monitor aneurysms of the abdominal aorta.

Your healthcare provider may order other related tests or procedures, depending on your health problem.

What are the risks of a vascular study?

Vascular studies are usually safe and painless, though some may find venous Dopplers slightly uncomfortable when the technologist applies pressure with the transducer. There are no radiation-related risks because ultrasound does not use radiation.

How do I get ready for a vascular study?

  • Your provider will explain the procedure to you. Ask any questions you have about the procedure.
  • Your healthcare provider may have other instructions for you based on your health problem.
  • Generally, you don’t need to prepare for a vascular study.
  • Your doctor may give you specific instructions about smoking and having caffeine. You may be asked to not smoke for at least 2 hours before the test. This is because smoking makes blood vessels tighten (constrict). You may also be asked to not have caffeine in any form for about 2 hours before to the test.

What happens during a vascular study?

A vascular study may be done on an outpatient basis, which means you go home the same day. Or it may be done as part of a hospital stay. Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your provider’s practices.

Generally, a vascular study follows this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove any jewelry or other objects that may interfere with the procedure. You may wear your glasses, dentures, or hearing aid if you use any of these.
  2. If you are asked to remove clothing, you will be given a gown to wear.
  3. You will lie on an exam table or bed.
  4. A clear gel will be placed on your skin at locations where the pulse is expected to be heard.
  5. The Doppler probe will be pressed against your skin and moved around over the area of the artery or vein being studied.
  6. When blood flow is detected, you will hear a "whoosh, whoosh" sound. The probe will be moved around to compare blood flow in different areas of the artery or vein.
  7. For some arterial studies of the legs, blood pressure cuffs will be used. They are put on 3 different places on your leg: your thigh, calf, and ankle. This is done to compare the blood pressure in these areas.