About Maytal Firnberg, MD

Assistant Clinical Professor
Departments of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics
UCSF Benioff Children's Hospitals-San Francisco

PEM POCUS Series: Pediatric Renal and Bladder Ultrasound

PEM POCUS fascia iliaca block

Read this tutorial on the use of point of care ultrasonography (POCUS) for pediatric renal and bladder ultrasonography. Then test your skills on the ALiEMU course page to receive your PEM POCUS badge worth 2 hours of ALiEMU course credit.

Module Goals

  1. List the indications for performing a pediatric renal/bladder point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS)
  2. Describe the technique for performing renal/bladder POCUS
  3. Identify hydronephrosis and its appearance at different severities
  4. List the limitations of renal/bladder POCUS
  5. Advanced: Recognize direct and other indirect signs of nephrolithiasis as well as gross renal/bladder structural anomalies such as cysts and masses

Case Introduction: Child with abdominal pain

Serena is a 9-year-old girl who comes into the emergency department complaining of one day of left flank and left lower quadrant pain (LLQ). The pain is intermittent, sharp, severe, and associated with 2 episodes of nonbloody, nonbilious emesis. Her mother denies any fevers, upper respiratory symptoms, sore throat, or diarrhea. She adds that her daughter has complained of 2-3 episodes of dysuria and gross hematuria over the last few days.

On arrival, her vital signs are:

Vital SignFinding
Temperature99 F
Heart Rate115 bpm
Blood Pressure97/50
Respiratory Rate19
Oxygen Saturation (room air)100%

You find her lying on the gurney, uncomfortable appearing, and intermittently crying. She has a normal HEENT, neck, cardiac, respiratory, and back examination. She has no flank tenderness, but she does cry out with palpation of the LLQ and suprapubic areas.

Given her pain with a history of intermittent hematuria and dysuria, you perform a renal and bladder point of care ultrasound (POCUS) examination.

Pediatric Renal and Bladder POCUS

  • Hematuria
  • Flank pain
  • Abdominal distension or palpable mass
  • Anuria, oliguria, or urinary retention
  • Concern for nephrolithiasis
  • Bladder volume assessment prior to urinary catheterization

Probe choice [1]

  • Typically based on the size of the child (Figure 1)
  • If unsure, perform test scans and choose the probe that most effectively provides the desired views and level of detail
ultrasound probe transducers

Figure 1. Ultrasound probes from left to right: linear (nenoates), phased array (infants/younger children), and curvilinear (older children/adolescents)

Pro tips for performing renal/bladder POCUS on a child [1]

  • Addressing potential anxiety leads to a more efficient and comfortable examination.
  • Explain to the parent (and child if old enough), the areas you need to examine.
  • Set up distractions such as toys or videos on a tablet or smartphone
  • When appropriate, demonstrate the probe(s) to the child and apply some ultrasound gel to the back of their hand so they understand it will not be painful.
  • Pre-warmed ultrasound gel is helpful when available.
  • Examine the patient in a position that maximizes comfort and minimizes anxiety.
    • Lay the patient supine when possible. They can lay on the stretcher, or in the parent’s lap if it calms them (Figure 2, left). This is also an optimal position in which the parent can hold a tablet or smart device above the patient’s face as a distractor.
    • If supine positioning is unsuccessful, the patient can be placed upright in their parent’s lap facing away from the sonographer (Figure 2, right). In this position, the parent can hug and hold the patient if needed.
pediatric ultrasound positioning

Figure 2: Patient positioning options: Left (supine) – Patient playing with the distractors during bladder POCUS; Right (upright) – Toddler facing away from sonographer during renal POCUS. Note: Blue dot represents the probe indicator.

Right Kidney (Longitudinal View)

  • Begin in the mid-axillary line around the 10th or 11th intercostal space with the probe marker pointed toward the patient’s head and identify the renal structures (Figure 3).
  • While maintaining probe contact on the skin, tilt it perpendicular to its long axis in each direction (also known as fanning) to assess the entire kidney (Video 1).
Longitudinal view ultrasound right kidney

Figure 3. Longitudinal view of the right kidney: Left – Probe placement in right mid-axillary line; Right – Unlabeled and labeled ultrasound view

Video 1. Longitudinal view of the right kidney

Right Kidney (Transverse View)

  • From the longitudinal view, rotate the probe 90 degrees and fan the probe to assess the entire kidney in the transverse plane (Video 2).
  • Identify the medullary pyramids, calyces, renal cortex, and renal pelvis (Figure 4).
Video 2. Transverse view of the right kidney
right kidney ultrasound transverse view

Figure 4. Transverse ultrasound view of the right kidney with anatomical labels

Left Kidney (Longitudinal View)

  • Place the probe in the left posterior axillary line (the left kidney is slightly more superior and posterior than the right) around the 8th to 10th intercostal space (Figure 5).
  • As performed on the right kidney, identify the relevant structures and fully assess the left kidney by fanning through (Video 3).
left kidney longitudinal ultrasound probe position

Figure 5. Longitudinal view of the left kidney with probe placement in posterior axillary line

Video 3. Longitudinal view of the left kidney

Left Kidney (Transverse View)

  • From the left longitudinal view, rotate the probe 90 degrees. Identify the relevant structures and fully assess the left kidney by fanning through (Video 4).
Video 4. Transverse view of the left kidney

Bladder (Transverse View)

  • With the indicator towards the patient’s right, place the probe on the patient’s midline just above the pubic symphysis and fan the probe downward into the pelvis (Figure 6). The pelvis, the bladder, uterus, prostate, and rectum can be seen in this view (Figure 7).
    • Pro Tip: The bladder is always directly behind the pubic symphysis, so if you cannot locate it, the probe may be too superior. 2
  • Fan through the entire bladder from superior to inferior borders (Video 5).

Figure 6. Probe positioning for transverse view of the bladder

Figure 7. Transvere ultrasound views of the bladder: Left – Uterus identified posteriorly in girl; Right – Prostate identified posteriorly in boy (Images courtesy of Dinh et al.)

Video 5. Transverse view of the bladder

Bladder (Longitudinal/Sagittal View)

  • From the transverse view, rotate the probe 90 degrees clockwise so the indicator is now pointing to the patient’s head.
  • Identify the bladder, bowel gas, uterus or prostate, and rectum (Figure 8). Then fan to scan from one lateral border of the bladder to the other (Video 6).
bladder longitudinal sagittal view

Figure 8. Sagittal view of bladder: Left – Uterus identified posteriorly in girl; Right – Prostate identified posteriorly in boy (Images courtesy of Dinh et al.)

Video 6. Sagittal view of bladder


Figure 9. Bladder volume calculation per dimension

The bladder’s shape may appear more rounded when it is full or distended. Bladder volume may be assessed prior to urinary catheterization to avoid an unsuccessful catheterization. Many ultrasound machines also have software which can calculate estimated bladder volume based on the above measurements.

Manual Measurement (Figure 10)

  • In the transverse view, measure the width and depth.
  • In the sagittal view, measure the height from the apex to the base.

Figure 10. Bladder measurement example: Left – Transverse view with width (4.35 cm) and depth (3.65 cm); Right – Sagittal view with height (3.53 cm). Estimated volume = 39.2 mL

Estimated Bladder Capacity by Age

  • [Age of the child (yr) x 30] + 30 = bladder capacity in mL
  • In a toilet-trained child, a post-void volume of ≤20 mL is normal [1].

The scope of POCUS focuses on the detection of hydronephrosis which would necessitate further workup. Hydronephrosis may be secondary to various obstructive etiologies such as nephrolithiasis, masses, or anatomical anomalies.

Severity Grading

Hydronephrosis severity grading begins with dilation at the renal pelvis (grade 1 or pelviectasis), which can be present in normal individuals who have not urinated in some time. The greater the degree of hydronephrosis, the more the dilation extends outwards into the calyces and the renal cortex (Figures 11-15 and Videos 7-9).

Figure 11. Hydronephrosis grading scale (courtesy of Dinh et al.)

Hydronephrosis: Hydroureter

Figure 12. Hydroureter on ultrasound of the right kidney

Hydronephrosis: Mild

Figure 13. Mild hydronephrosis on ultrasound with only pelviectasis, or dilation of the renal pelvis (Image courtesy of Dr. Jim Tsung)

Video 7. Renal ultrasound showing pelviectasis

Hydronephrosis: Moderate

Figure 14. Moderate hydronephrosis showing dilation extending into the major/minor calyces (Image courtesy of POCUS atlas)

Video 8. Moderate hydronephrosis (full video from Figure 14)

Hydronephrosis: Severe

Figure 15. Severe hydronephrosis with dilation causing cortical thinning (Image courtesy of POCUS Atlas)

Video 9. Severe hydronephrosis with “bear claw” sign (full video from Figure 15)

Direct Visualization

Stones may be located anywhere along the urogenital tract. If directly visible, stones will appear as hyperechoic structures and may have acoustic shadowing (Figure 16).

Figure 16. Left – Hyperechoic renal stone with acoustic shadowing and associated moderate hydronephrosis; Right – Bladder stone with acoustic shadowing (images courtesy of Dr. James Tsung)

Video 11. Renal stone with acoustic shadowing and moderate hydronephrosis

Indirect Visualization

Direct visualization will not always be possible since stones are most commonly located in the ureters and may be obscured by bowel gas. Indirect signs of stones include hydronephrosis, twinkling artifact, and absence of ureteral jet [1, 4].

Twinkling artifact is a color Doppler finding that can help identify a stone that may not be directly visible in B-mode. It is generated from turbulent flow around a rough-edged structure (i.e, a stone). Color Doppler interrogation will produce a multi-colored high high-intensity structure behind the stone (Figure 17). The turbulent flow depicted can be seen even if the causative hyperechoic stone is not visible [1, 3].

Figure 17. Twinkling artifact in a patient with a right ureterovesciular junction stone (Image courtesy of Dr. James Tsung)

Video 12. Twinkling artifact from a renal stone
Renal cysts are thin-walled, smooth, localized, and anechoic areas that are round or oval in shape. They can occur as solitary lesions or multiple lesions often in the periphery of the kidney (Figures 18-19). They should not be confused with dilated medullary pyramids from hydronephrosis, which appear as branching and “interlinked” hypoechoic areas resembling a cauliflower. Cysts will have a more spherical shape and will not “communicate” with one another [5].

Figure 19. Single renal cyst without (left) and with (right) color Doppler flow to differentiate from vasculature (Images courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Tutman)

Figure 20. Multiple renal cysts without (left) and with (right) color Doppler flow differentiating from vasculature  (Images courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Tutman)

Hyperechoic and heterogeneous lesions that distort or do not conform to typical renal architecture are concerning for renal masses. Wilms tumor is the most common renal malignancy in children with peak incidence between ages 1 and 5 years old. On ultrasound, it appears as an echogenic intrarenal mass that may have cystic areas from hemorrhage and necrosis (Figure 21) [4].

Figure 21. Wilms tumor in the right kidney without (left) and with (right) color Doppler flow (Images courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Tutman)

Other potential neoplasms within or adjacent to the genitourinary system include but are not limited to neuroblastoma, rhabdoid tumor, rhabdomyosarcoma, renal cell carcinoma, and clear cell carcinoma [4, 6]. The most common malignant bladder mass is rhabdomyosarcoma, and the genitourinary tract is the second most common tumor site. It is usually large, nodular, well-defined, homogeneous, and slightly hypoechoic (Figure 13) [6].

Figure 22. Bladder rhabdomyosarcoma tumor without (left) and with (right) color Doppler flow (Images courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Tutman)

  • Always scan both kidneys for comparison
  • Scan the bladder when evaluating the kidneys
  • Rib shadowing – attempt to maneuver around rib shadows by reangling the probe or moving up or down a rib space.
  • Bladder dimension calculations may be inaccurate if the calipers are not placed in the right orientations.
  • Large ovarian cysts may be mistaken for the bladder.
  • Because renal stones can be difficult to visualize directly, look for secondary signs such as hydronephrosis.
  • Because renal vasculature may be mistaken for hydronephrosis, use color Doppler to differentiate.
  • Renal cysts can be confused for hydronephrosis, and both warrant further imaging by Radiology.

Bladder volume estimation

Measuring bladder volume via POCUS in pediatric patients has been studied, demonstrating a benefit on Emergency Department workflow and length of stay (Table 1). For example, POCUS can confirm urine in the bladder, prior to catheterization in infants [7-8].

Author, Title, Journal, Publication YearStudy Type, Location, Time FrameN, AgesSummary
Milling et al., Use of ultrasonography to identify infants for whom urinary catheterization will be unsuccessful because of insufficient urine volume: validation of the urinary bladder index. Ann Emer Med, 2005 [7]Prospective, blinded, observational study performed in the pediatric ED, 3 month periodN=44, < 2 years of age
  • Created a bladder urinary index by multiplying the AP and transverse bladder diameters.
  • Determined the smallest bladder index that would result in successful urinary catheterization, which was defined as yielding at least 2 mL of urine.
  • The index achieved 100% sensitivity and 97% specificity.
Chen et al., Utility of bedside bladder ultrasound before urethral catheterization in young children. Pediatrics, 2005 [8]Prospective 2 -hase study, performed in the pediatric ED, 6 month periodN=136 for observation phase

N=112 for intervention phase

Ages 0-24 months

  • Observation Phase: The success rate of the first urethral catheterization attempt was calculated without preemptive bladder ultrasound
  • Intervention Phase: Bladder POCUS was performed, and catheterization was withheld until sufficient urine was present.
  • Successful catheterization rate during the observation phase was 72% overall, compared to 96% in the intervention phase.
Dessie et al., Point-of-Care Ultrasound Assessment of Bladder Fullness for Female Patients Awaiting Radiology-Performed Transabdominal Pelvic Ultrasound in a Pediatric Emergency Department: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Ann Emerg Med, 2018 [9]Randomized controlled trial, performed in a pediatric ED, 12 month periodN=120

8-18 years

  • To assess bladder fullness prior to transabdominal pelvic ultrasound, patients were randomized to subjective numerical scale versus bladder POCUS in addition to numerical scale.
  • Those in the bladder ultrasound arm completed their pelvic ultrasounds 51 minutes faster than the control group.
  • Success rate of pelvic ultrasound was 100% vs 84.7% in the control group.
Table 1. Pediatric bladder POCUS studies

Pediatric Hydronephrosis and Nephrolithiasis

Although adult studies (Table 2) have shown moderate diagnostic accuracy of POCUS in detecting hydronephrosis and nephrolithiasis, there is a dearth of POCUS-based renal studies in the pediatric literature . This has led to controversy whether to perform a renal ultrasound versus CT, even when the Radiology department performs the ultrasound.

  • Only 2 case series and 1 case report for POCUS-identified nephrolithiasis in children (Table 3)
  • No studies have aimed to determine sensitivity and specificity of POCUS for hydronephrosis in children in the context of renal colic.
Author, Title, Journal, Publication YearStudy Type, Location, Time FrameN, AgesSummary
Pathan et al., Emergency Physician Interpretation of Point-of-care Ultrasound for Identifying and Grading of Hydronephrosis in Renal Colic Compared With Consensus Interpretation by Emergency Radiologists, Acad Emerg Med, 2018 [10]Secondary analysis of images, obtained 2014-2015 from a large volume ED.N=651, Adults
  • Secondary analysis of ED physician POCUS images diagnosing hydronephrosis
  • Images were re-interpreted by radiologists to determine accuracy.
  • Sensitivity=85.7%, specificity=65.9%
  • CT was used as a reference standard when possible, yielding sensitivity=81.1% and specificity=59.4%.
Wong et al., The Accuracy and Prognostic Value of Point-of-care Ultrasound for Nephrolithiasis in the Emergency Department: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Acad Emerg Med, 2018 [11]Systematic review & Meta-analysis, Multicenter, 2005 Through April 2016N=1,773, Adults
  • POCUS has modest diagnostic accuracy in adults for nephrolithiasis.
  • Moderate or greater hydronephrosis was highly specific for stones.
  • Detection of any hydronephrosis was suggestive of a stone >5 mm in size.
Kim et al., Usefulness of Protocolized Point-of-Care Ultrasonography for Patients with Acute Renal Colic Who Visited Emergency Department: A Randomized Controlled Study. Medicina, 2019 [12]Prospective randomized control trial in a tertiary care ED, March 2019-July 2019N=164, Adults
  • Evaluated POCUS protocol in managing patients with renal colic in the ED.
  • Patients were assigned to CT vs ultrasound group.
  • Length of stay was 62 min shorter and medical cost was lower in the ultrasound group with no difference in complications within 30 days.
Sibley et al., Point-of-care ultrasound for the detection of hydronephrosis in emergency department patients with suspected renal colic. Ultrasound J, 2020 [13]Prospective observational study in 2 Canadian academic EDs, April 2011 – July 2013N=413, Adults
  • Patients presenting with renal colic had an ED-performed POCUS.
  • The patients also had a CT or an ultrasound by Radiology as a reference standard.
  • For detecting hydronephrosis via POCUS, sensitivity=77.1% and specificity=71.8%.
Table 2. Adult POCUS studies on hydronephrosis and nephrolithiasis
Author, Title, Journal, Publication YearStudy Type, Location, Time FrameN, AgesSummary
Chandra et al., Point-of-care ultrasound in pediatric urolithiasis: an ED case series. Am J Emerg Med. 2015 [14]Case series in a pediatric ED, over a 2-year periodN=8

5-17 years

  • 8 cases of nephrolithiasis were identified with POCUS in patients presenting with renal colic.
  • All patients had confirmatory imaging in radiology.
  • Stones of 2 patients were visualized directly; others were identified by hydronephrosis, twinkling artifact, unilateral absence of ureteral jet, and/or a bladder bulge
Ng et al., Avoiding Computed Tomography Scans By Using Point-Of-Care Ultrasound When Evaluating Suspected Pediatric Renal Colic. Ultrasound in EM, 2015 [15]Retrospective case series in a pediatric ED, time frame not specifiedN=5

3-21 years

  • Hydronephrosis, ureteral jets, twinkling artifact, and the visualization of urinary tract stones were identified in patients with renal colic.
  • CT was avoided in all 5 patients.
Gillon et al., Diagnosis of Posterior Urethral Valves in an Infant Using Point-of-Care Ultrasound. Ped Emerg Care, 2021 [16]Case report in a tertiary pediatric ED, date not specified1, infant
  • Case report of 7-week old boy diagnosed with posterior urethral valves when the ED POCUS identified signs of bladder outlet obstruction. This included a thickened and distended bladder with bilateral hydroureter, severe bilateral hydronephrosis, and small perinephric fluid collections consistent with calyceal rupture.
Table 3. Pediatric POCUS studies on hydronephrosis and nephrolithiasis


Using the curvilinear probe, you perform a POCUS on the bladder and both kidneys (Video 12).

Video 12. Bilateral renal ultrasound demonstrating twinkling artifact in the bladder and left-sided moderate hydronephrosis, indicative of a distal left ureteral stone (Video courtesy of Dr. Jim Tsung)

Case Resolution

Labs showed a slight leukocytosis with a serum WBC of 13 x109/L but no left shift and a normal creatinine. Urinalysis was positive for blood, RBC’s, and crystals but negative for glucose, ketones, leukocyte esterase, nitrites, WBC’s, squamous cells, and bacteria. The pain and vomiting were well-controlled with ketorolac and ondansetron, respectively. Urology was consulted and recommended medical management. The patient was discharged on tamsulosin and given urine-straining instructions.

Pediatrician Clinic Follow-Up

At her pediatrician clinic visit 2 weeks later, the patient had passed the stone and was asymptomatic.

Learn More…


  1. Paliwalla M, Park K. A practical guide to urinary tract ultrasound in a child: Pearls and pitfalls. Ultrasound. 2014 Nov;22(4):213-22. doi: 10.1177/1742271X14549795. Epub 2014 Nov 10. PMID: 27433222; PMCID: PMC4760558.
  2. Deschamps J, Dinh V, Ahn J, et al. Renal Ultrasound Made Easy: Step-By-Step Guide. POCUS101.com. [cited 2023 July 4].
  3. Sethi SK, Raina R, Koratala A, Rad AH, Vadhera A, Badeli H. Point-of-care ultrasound in pediatric nephrology. Pediatr Nephrol. 2023 Jun;38(6):1733-1751. doi: 10.1007/s00467-022-05729-5. Epub 2022 Sep 26. PMID: 36161524; PMCID: PMC9510186.
  4. Milla, Sarah; Lee, Edward; Buonomo, Carlo; Bramson, Robert T. Ultrasound Evaluation of Pediatric Abdominal Masses, Ultrasound Clinics, Volume 2, Issue 3, 2007, Pages 541-559.
  5. Koratala A, Alquadan KF. Parapelvic cysts mimicking hydronephrosis. Clin Case Rep. 2018 Feb 21;6(4):760-761. doi: 10.1002/ccr3.1431. PMID: 29636957; PMCID: PMC5889270.
  6. Shelmerdine SC, Lorenzo AJ, Gupta AA, Chavhan GB. Pearls and Pitfalls in Diagnosing Pediatric Urinary Bladder Masses. Radiographics. 2017 Oct;37(6):1872-1891. doi: 10.1148/rg.2017170031. PMID: 29019749.
  7. Milling TJ Jr, Van Amerongen R, Melville L, et al. Use of ultrasonography to identify infants for whom urinary catheterization will be unsuccessful because of insufficient urine volume: validation of the urinary bladder index. Ann Emerg Med. 2005;45(5):510-513. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2004.11.010
  8. Chen L, Hsiao AL, Moore CL, Dziura JD, Santucci KA. Utility of bedside bladder ultrasound before urethral catheterization in young children. Pediatrics. 2005 Jan;115(1):108-11. doi: 10.1542/peds.2004-0738. PMID: 15629989.
  9. Dessie A, Steele D, Liu AR, Amanullah S, Constantine E. Point-of-Care Ultrasound Assessment of Bladder Fullness for Female Patients Awaiting Radiology-Performed Transabdominal Pelvic Ultrasound in a Pediatric Emergency Department: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Ann Emerg Med. 2018 Nov;72(5):571-580. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2018.04.010. Epub 2018 Jul 3. PMID: 29980460.
  10. Pathan SA, Mitra B, Mirza S, Momin U, Ahmed Z, Andraous LG, Shukla D, Shariff MY, Makki MM, George TT, Khan SS, Thomas SH, Cameron PA. Emergency Physician Interpretation of Point-of-care Ultrasound for Identifying and Grading of Hydronephrosis in Renal Colic Compared With Consensus Interpretation by Emergency Radiologists. Acad Emerg Med. 2018 Oct;25(10):1129-1137. doi: 10.1111/acem.13432. Epub 2018 May 28. PMID: 29663580.
  11. Wong C, Teitge B, Ross M, Young P, Robertson HL, Lang E. The Accuracy and Prognostic Value of Point-of-care Ultrasound for Nephrolithiasis in the Emergency Department: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Acad Emerg Med. 2018 Jun;25(6):684-698. doi: 10.1111/acem.13388. Epub 2018 Mar 25. PMID: 29427476.
  12. Kim SG, Jo IJ, Kim T, et al. Usefulness of Protocolized Point-of-Care Ultrasonography for Patients with Acute Renal Colic Who Visited Emergency Department: A Randomized Controlled Study. Medicina (Kaunas). 2019 Oct 28;55(11):717. doi: 10.3390/medicina55110717. PMID: 31661942; PMCID: PMC6915595.
  13. Sibley S, Roth N, Scott C, et al. Point-of-care ultrasound for the detection of hydronephrosis in emergency department patients with suspected renal colic. Ultrasound J. 2020 Jun 8;12(1):31. doi: 10.1186/s13089-020-00178-3. PMID: 32507905; PMCID: PMC7276462.
  14. Chandra A, Zerzan J, Arroyo A, Levine M, Dickman E, Tessaro M. Point-of-care ultrasound in pediatric urolithiasis: an ED case series. Am J Emerg Med. 2015 Oct;33(10):1531-4. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2015.05.048. Epub 2015 Jun 23. PMID: 26321169.
  15. Ng C, Tsung JW. Avoiding Computed Tomography Scans By Using Point-Of-Care Ultrasound When Evaluating Suspected Pediatric Renal Colic. J Emerg Med. 2015 Aug;49(2):165-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2015.01.017. Epub 2015 Apr 29. PMID: 25934378.
  16. Gillon JT, Cohen SG. Diagnosis of Posterior Urethral Valves in an Infant Using Point-of-Care Ultrasound. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2021 Aug 1;37(8):435-436. doi: 10.1097/PEC.0000000000002393. PMID: 34397679

PEM POCUS Series: Pediatric Focused Assessment with Sonography for Trauma (FAST)

PEM POCUS fascia iliaca block

Read this tutorial on the use of point of care ultrasonography (POCUS) for Pediatric Focused Assessment with Sonography for Trauma. Then test your skills on the ALiEMU course page to receive your PEM POCUS badge worth 2 hours of ALiEMU course credit.

Module Goals

  1. Summarize the indications and role of the FAST in the evaluation of injured children
  2. Describe the technique for performing the pediatric FAST
  3. Identify anatomical views and landmarks necessary for a complete pediatric FAST
  4. Accurately interpret each pediatric FAST anatomic view and corresponding landmarks
  5. Describe the literature on the pediatric FAST

Case Introduction

You receive an emergency medical services (EMS) notification that they are 2 minutes out from your ED with a 3-year-old boy who fell down a flight of 10 concrete stairs. He is awake and breathing spontaneously but irritable and crying with an obvious deformity to his right arm. EMS placed him in a cervical-collar and are bringing him to your ED.

Vital SignFinding
Heart Rate158 bpm
Blood Pressure86/48
Respiratory Rate32
Oxygen Saturation98% room air

You conduct your primary assessment:

Trauma AlgorithmAssessment
AirwayPatent: Audibly crying; cervical collar in place
BreathingBilateral breath sounds heard
CirculationSymmetric radial pulses palpable bilaterally; capillary refill 2-3 seconds
DisabilityHis eyes are open, but he is irritable and withdraws to touch (GCS= 13)
ExposureDiffuse superficial abrasions to face and extremities; tenderness and swelling to right forearm; abdomen soft without distension although difficult to appreciate tenderness as patient is crying

You call a trauma consult, connect the patient to the monitor, establish IV access, and reach for your ultrasound probe to perform a FAST.

Trauma remains the leading cause of childhood death and disability in children >1 year of age [1]. While head and thoracic trauma account for most death and disability in children, missed abdominal injuries are a common cause of mortality [2]. Particularly in polytrauma scenarios, it can be difficult for children to locate the exact area of pain and assessing for abdominal injury can be difficult.

FAST is a rapid ultrasound examination of 4 locations (Figure 1) with the primary objective of detecting free fluid within the abdomen, pleural space, and pericardial sac. In injured adults, FAST is useful in rapidly triaging hemodynamically unstable patients to expedite operative management [3]. Free fluid in any one view deems the FAST positive. However, for a FAST to be determined as negative, each of the landmarks in each individual view must be interrogated and evaluated for the presence of free fluid. The role of FAST in the hemodynamically stable child after blunt abdominal trauma is nuanced.

FAST ultrasound probe locations surface anatomy

Figure 1. Location of the 4 FAST views: Right upper quadrant (A), left upper quadrant (B), pelvic (C), subxiphoid (D). Illustration by Dr. Maytal Firnberg.

FAST Technique

The FAST can be performed in parallel with the rest of the trauma evaluation. Serial FAST exams can be repeated as needed throughout the child’s ED stay, particularly if the child has an unexplained change in clinical status. For a complete FAST, each of the views needs to be assessed and every landmark in each view must be visualized. In addition to intra-abdominal hemorrhage and pericardial effusion, point-of-care ultrasound can be used to evaluate the thorax for hemothorax and pneumothorax. When included together, this exam is referred to as the extended FAST (E-FAST).

In general, the child should be positioned supine as free fluid will pool in dependent areas (Figure 2). In children, the recto-vesicular or recto-uterine pouch is the most common place for fluid to collect depending on the patient’s sex [4]. Fluid in the abdomen can move freely up the right pericolic gutter into the right upper quadrant. The left pericolic gutter is higher and the phrenicocolic ligament blocks the flow; consequently, fluid tends to flow to the right pericolic area over the left, regardless of injury type.

Some controversy exists about how much free fluid can be detected by the FAST, and most studies focused on adults. For pediatric patients, we are using 100 mL as it was the median quantity of fluid needed for ultrasound detection of the pelvic view [5].

Free fluid collection areas FAST

Figure 2. Free fluid accumulates in dependent areas. In a supine patient, this is the hepato-renal pouch (right upper quadrant view), the spleno-renal pouch (left upper quadrant view), and recto-vesicular or recto-uterine pouch (pelvic view). Illustration by Dr. Maytal Firnberg.

Use a low frequency ultrasound probe: phased array probe (Figure 3) or curvilinear probe (Figure 4).

    • Phased array probes can generally achieve adequate penetration particularly for smaller pediatric patients and have a smaller footprint allowing for easier intercostal views.
    • Curvilinear probes allow for further penetration and greater depth of abdominal views and may be useful in larger children.

In order to obtain each landmark in the views discussed below, the ultrasound probe will often need to be manipulated in a number of orientations.

probe types

Figure 3 (left): Phased array ultrasound probe; Figure 4 (right): Curvilinear ultrasound probe

For the 4 scanning areas, each view must be interrogated completely, and the clinician should identify all key landmarks. The red dot on the probe correlates with the probe marker.

Right ​​Upper Quadrant (RUQ) View
Probe Placement
RUQ probe placement

Figure 5. Place the probe in the right mid axillary line (around ribs 8-10) with the probe marker towards the head. Fan anterior and posterior and slide up or down a rib space to view the key landmarks.

Normal View and Landmarks
RUQ normal ultrasound view

Figure 6. Normal RUQ ultrasound view with labeled landmarks

  • Diaphragm (including the subdiaphragmatic intraperitoneal space and supradiaphragmatic intrathoracic space)
  • Liver (including the caudal tip of the liver)
  • Kidney (including superior and inferior poles)
  • Hepatorenal Recess (Morison’s Pouch) – A potential space between the liver and kidney where free fluid can collect
Normal Ultrasound Video

Video 1. Normal RUQ ultrasound view
Left ​​Upper Quadrant (LUQ) View
Probe Placement
LUQ probe placement

Figure 7. Place the probe in the left mid or posterior axillary line (around ribs 7-9) with the probe maker towards the head. Fan anterior and posterior and slide up or down a rib space to view the landmarks. In infants and smaller children, the midaxillary line generally provides the best view.

Normal View and Landmarks
Normal LUQ ultrasound view

Figure 8. Normal LUQ ultrasound view with labeled landmarks

  • Diaphragm (including the sub- and supradiaphragmatic areas)
  • Spleen (including splenic tip)
  • Kidney (including superior and inferior poles)
  • Splenorenal Recess – a potential space between the spleen and kidney where free fluid can collect
Normal Ultrasound Video

Video 2. Normal LUQ ultrasound view
Pelvic View
Probe Placement
pelvic probe placement

Figure 9. Place the probe in the midline below the umbilicus and fan or rock the probe down towards the feet until the bladder comes into view. Fan through the entire bladder in both transverse and sagittal orientations. For the transverse and sagittal views, the probe marker should be towards the patient’s right and head, respectively.

Normal View and Landmarks
Normal pelvic ultrasound views

Figure 10. Normal sagittal (left) and transverse (right) views of the pelvic ultrasound with labeled bladder

  • Bladder (including anterior and posterior walls)
    • In patients with uteruses, make sure to visualize the uterus and the recto-uterine space as fluid can collect between the bladder and uterus and also behind the uterus.
Normal Ultrasound Video

Video 3. Normal pelvic ultrasound view (sagittal)

Video 4. Normal pelvic ultrasound view (transverse)
Pericardial View
Probe Placement
pericardial ultrasound probe

Figure 11. Place the probe under the sternum for a subxiphoid view. Point the probe towards the left shoulder and the probe marker towards the right shoulder. This view requires gentle downward pressure as you drop the angle of the probe down towards the patient. If unable to obtain this subxiphoid view, look parasternally.

Normal View and Landmarks
Normal pericardial ultrasound view

Figure 12. Normal pericardial subxiphoid ultrasound view with labeled landmarks

  • Hepatic-pericardial interface
  • Left and right ventricles (atria may also be visible)
  • Pericardial space
Normal Ultrasound Video

Video 5. Normal pericardial ultrasound view (no pericardial effusion and normal contractility)

Free fluid will appear anechoic (black) and will pool in dependent, unobstructed areas. On the right side, fluid in the abdomen can move freely up the pericolic gutter into the right upper quadrant. On the left, the pericolic gutter is higher and the phrenicocolic ligament may impede its flow. The RUQ view is the most sensitive view in adults while the pelvic view is the most sensitive view in children [4]. The following are examples of free fluid identified within the various views of the FAST scan.

free fluid ultrasound labelled

Figure 13. RUQ ultrasound view demonstrating free fluid in Morrison’s pouch in an unlabelled (A) and labelled (B) image

Abnormal RUQ Views

RUQ Free Fluid ultrasound

Figures 14 (left) and 15 (right). Abnormal RUQ ultrasound views with free fluid. Note that the right image demonstrates free fluid both above and below the diaphragm, meaning fluid that is in the peritoneal and pleural cavities, respectively.

Video 6. Abnormal RUQ ultrasound view with free fluid in the pleural space and Morison’s pouch

Abnormal LUQ Views

Tip: In the LUQ view, the free fluid tends to collect just under the diaphragm. Be sure to look at the diaphragm-spleen interface.

LUQ free fluid ultrasound

Figure 16. Abnormal LUQ view with free fluid below the diaphragm and above the spleen

Video 7. Abnormal LUQ ultrasound view with free fluid under the diaphragm

Abnormal Pelvic Views

Tip: Free fluid can collect between the bladder and colon in male patients. In female patients, fluid can collect between the bladder and uterus or between the uterus and colon.

pelvic free fluid ultrasound

Figure 17. Abnormal pelvic view showing free fluid between the bladder and colon

Video 8. Abnormal pelvic ultrasound on sagittal view showing free fluid

Abnormal Pericardial Views

abnormal pericardial FF ultrasound

Figure 18. Abnormal pericardial view showing pericardial free fluid

Video 9. Abnormal pericardial ultrasound view showing free fluid
ArtifactUltrasound Image
Mirror Artifact

These artifacts are cast above the diaphragm in the RUQ and LUQ views.

ultrasound spine sign artifact

Figure 19. The RUQ view shows liver parenchyma architecture cephalad of the diaphragm as a mirror artifact.

Spine Sign

The spine is not typically seen cephalad to the diaphragm by ultrasound due to air artifact. If the spine is visualized above the diaphragm, this indicates the lungs are no longer filled with air, which normally causes the refraction/reflection of ultrasound waves. This occurs in instances where air is replaced by fluid, such as a pleural effusion or hemothorax, or by a dense consolidation or contusion.

Figure 20. A – The spine is not visualized cephalad to the diaphragm in a normal RUQ ultrasound view. B – A pleural effusion results in a “spine sign” where the spine can be seen extended beyond the diaphragm.

Posterior Acoustic Enhancement

Since the bladder is a fluid filled structure which transmits ultrasound waves well, the waves illuminate the posterior wall of the bladder in a phenomenon called posterior acoustic enhancement. This brightness can hide free fluid settled in the pelvis. Thus, decrease the far field gain (brightness) behind the bladder to avoid missing obscured free fluid.

posterior acoustic enhancement

Figure 21. Bladder view with posterior acoustic enhancement artifact

Old Blood

As blood pools, the ultrasound appearance of clotted blood may have similar echotexture to surrounding soft tissue or organs rather than appear anechoic (black) as typical free fluid.

clotted blood artifact

Figure 22. Bladder view showing hypoechoic clotted blood that may be confused as soft tissue

Edge Artifact

Due to ultrasound physics and sound wave transmission between structures of different densities, edge artifacts are seen as a dark thin line tracing off the edge of this interface extending to the bottom of the screen. It can be misinterpreted as free fluid.

edge artifact ultrasound

Figure 23. RUQ view with an edge artifact

Stomach Sabotage

A full stomach will appear as a rounded collection of fluid and air anterior to the spleen. It may mimic a free fluid collection. Fan posterior of the stomach to visualize the spleen and perisplenic spaces.

Stomach sabotage artifact

Figure 24. The stomach obscures the LUQ view. Note the mix of bright (air) and dark (other gastric contents) inside the stomach.

Seminal Vesicles

Seminal vesicles can appear as hypoechoic, contained, symmetric structures posterior to the bladder in the transverse view and can be mistaken for free fluid.

Seminal vesicle artifact

Figure 25. Bladder view showing hypoechoic seminal vesicles  posterior to the bladder

  • The FAST evaluates for the presence free fluid only [6].
    • In trauma, the assumption is that free fluid is due to hemorrhage; however, the FAST cannot adequately distinguish between blood and other types of free fluid, such as ascites or physiologic free fluid.
    • It does not directly evaluate for injury to solid organs, bowel, diaphragm, or retroperitoneum​.
  • In isolation, the FAST cannot rule out intra-abdominal injury [7].
  • The FAST can not detect tiny amounts of hemorrhage.
    • The scan may appear initially negative with a free fluid volume under a threshold of about 100 mL [5].
    • Repeat FAST scans may help detect an accumulation of fluid over time throughout a child’s evaluation.
  • Trace pelvic free fluid may be physiologic in children, thus limiting specificity [8].

For adults, the FAST is integral in the diagnostic evaluation after blunt and penetrating trauma [9]. It improves outcomesby decreasing the time to surgical intervention, patient length of stay, surgical complications, CT scan, and diagnostic peritoneal lavage rates [3].

For children, however, the literature is less clear cut. Pediatric injury patterns commonly result in solid organ lacerations without hemoperitoneum, making the FAST a less sensitive means for detecting important intra-abdominal injury [7]. Further, the test characteristics of the FAST have variable reliability and accuracy in children [7,10,11]. This variation contributes to uncertainty of how to use results of the FAST and decreases its impact on potentially important clinical outcomes such as rates of CT scans and ED length of stay [12]. However…

  • The FAST is able to identify injuries that the physical exam can miss. When combined with the physical exam, the FAST scan has been found to have better test characteristics than the physical exam alone [13].
  • The improvement in POCUS technology, widespread pediatric-specific POCUS expertise, and a focus on clinically relevant outcomes have allowed clinicians to integrate the FAST into novel diagnostic strategies for children after blunt torso trauma [14].
  • The pediatric FAST may be used in combination with signs, symptoms, and other diagnostic testing as a screening algorithm to decrease unnecessary CTs. Investigators will need to conduct larger validation trials to confirm and clarify the algorithm.

Studies that have shaped the pediatric FAST literature landscape:

StudyStudy Type, Location (Time Frame)N, AgesNotes
Menaker et al., J Trauma Acute Care Surg 2014 [7]

Secondary Analysis of a Prospective Observational Study

Multicenter (May 2007 to January 2010)


Median age, 11.8 yrs; interquartile range (IQR) 6.3-15.5 yrs

  • Evaluated the variability of clinician-performed FAST examinations and the use of abdominal CT following FAST examination in children with blunt trauma
  • 373 (5.8%) were diagnosed with intra-abdominal injury
  • 3,015 (46.6%) underwent abdominal CT scanning. Only 887 (13.7%) underwent FAST examination before CT scan.
  • Use of the FAST increased as clinician suspicion for intra-abdominal injury increased. When clinicians had a lower suspicion, they were significantly less likely to order a CT scan, if a FAST examination was performed.
Holmes et al., JAMA 2017 [12]

Randomized Clinical Trial

University of California, Davis Medical Center (April 2012-May 2015)


Mean 9.7 yrs; SD 5.3 yrs

  • Studied the impact of the FAST scan on on multiple patient centered outcomes
  • Hemodynamically stable patients with blunt torso trauma were randomized a FAST or no FAST scan.
  • 50 had intra-abdominal injury, including 40 patients (80%) with intraperitoneal fluid and 9 patients underwent laparotomy.
  • No difference in the proportion obtaining CT, missed intra-abdominal injuries, length of stay, or cost.
Kornblith et al., Acad Emerg Med 2020 [13]

Retrospective Review

University of California, Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland (November 2013 to July 2015)


Median age 8 yr; IQR 4-12 yr

  • Query of trauma database for children who met institutional trauma activation criteria and who also had a FAST performed.
  • 50 (14%) patients were found to have an intra-abdominal injury with 13 (4%) requiring intervention.
  • Positive FAST and positive physical exam were found to be independent predictors of intra-abdominal injury, both with a 74% sensitivity.
  • When combined, FAST and physical exam (FAST-enhanced physical exam) improved sensitivity to 88% (NPV 97.3%).
Liang et al., Pediatr. Emerg Care 2021 [11]

Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Multicenter (January 1966- March 2018)


Study dependent

  • Based on 8 studies, the FAST had a pooled sensitivity of 35% and specificity 96% for intra-abdomianal injury.
  • All 8 studies were prospective; 1 of the 8 was the 2017 Holmes paper mentioned above [12].
  • Conclusion: For a positive FAST, the post-test probability of an intra-abdominal injury was 63% meaning that those patients should get a CT to characterize injury. If the FAST is negative, you may still need a CT, because the post-test probability of intra-abdominal injury was still relatively high at 9%.
  • None of the studies had low enough negative likelihood ratios to obviate the need for CT.
  • Although a negative FAST alone does not exclude an intra-abdominal injury, it can identify low-risk patients with a reassuring physical exam and GCS 14-15.
Kornblith et al., JAMA 2022 [15]

Expert, consensus–based Modified Delphi

International multicenter (May 2021 to June 2021)

  • Generated definitions for complete pediatric FAST and E-FAST studies in the context of blunt trauma

Future Directions

The use of FAST in pediatric trauma is an evolving area of active research. A clear consensus on the way the FAST fits into pediatric trauma protocols is yet to be determined. Studies will need to be performed to examine the benefits of serial FAST, patient factors that may influence its test characteristics, and effect on patient centered outcomes.

There are a number of strategies to incorporate the above studies into clinical care, and one example is illustrated in the algorithm below. Keep in mind that FAST should be used in conjunction with other signs and symptoms of intra-abdominal injury (vomiting, decrease breath sounds, abdominal pain, thoracic wall trauma). Also consider laboratory testing such as liver function tests and urinalysis, depending on the clinical context and consulting your surgical colleagues.

Sample Algorithm for Pediatric Blunt Torso Trauma

Zuckerberg San Francisco General Pediatric Blunt Torso Trauma Algorithm (shared with permission)

Case Resolution

The primary survey is completed with airway, breathing, and circulation noted to be intact. As someone starts the secondary survey, you grab a phased array probe and perform a FAST . You observe the following:

RUQ View

LUQ View

Pelvis View, Sagittal

Pelvis View, Transverse

Pericardial View

You call out ‘FAST negative’ to the documenting nurse and team leader.

ED Course

The patient has radiographs performed of his chest, pelvis, neck, and right forearm. He is diagnosed with a type 3 supracondylar humeral fracture but the other radiographs are negative for fracture and pneumothorax. The rest of his evaluation is reassuring. Orthopedics is consulted and they admit him for surgery. He is discharged home the next day with pediatrician follow up.

Pediatrician Clinic Follow-Up

At her pediatrician clinic visit 1 week later, he is playful and active with his arm in a cast. He has been eating and drinking normally without any complaints of abdominal pain. He has orthopedics follow up scheduled for the following week.

Learn More…


  1. Leading Causes of Death by Age Group United States 2018. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed September 28, 2022
  2. Kenefake ME, Swarm M, Walthall J. Nuances in Pediatric Trauma. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2013;31(3):627-652. doi:10.1016/j.emc.2013.04.004
  3. Melniker LA, Leibner E, McKenney MG, Lopez P, Briggs WM, Mancuso CA. Randomized controlled clinical trial of point-of-care, limited ultrasonography for trauma in the emergency department: the first sonography outcomes assessment program trial. Ann Emerg Med. 2006;48(3):227-235. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2006.01.008
  4. Brenkert TE, Adams C, Vieira RL, Rempell RG. Peritoneal fluid localization on FAST examination in the pediatric trauma patient. Am J Emerg Med. 2017;35(10):1497-1499. doi:10.1016/j.ajem.2017.04.025
  5. Jehle DVK, Stiller G, Wagner D. Sensitivity in Detecting Free Intraperitoneal Fluid With the Pelvic Views of the FAST Exam.
  6. Netherton S, Milenkovic V, Taylor M, Davis PJ. Diagnostic accuracy of eFAST in the trauma patient: a systematic review and meta-analysis. CJEM. 2019;21(6):727-738. doi:10.1017/cem.2019.381
  7. Menaker J, Blumberg S, Wisner DH, et al. Use of the focused assessment with sonography for trauma (FAST) examination and its impact on abdominal computed tomography use in hemodynamically stable children with blunt torso trauma. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2014;77(3):427-432. doi:10.1097/TA.0000000000000296
  8. Berona K, Kang T, Rose E. Pelvic Free Fluid in Asymptomatic Pediatric Blunt Abdominal Trauma Patients: A Case Series and Review of the Literature. J Emerg Med. 2016;50(5):753-758. doi:10.1016/j.jemermed.2016.01.003
  9. Bloom BA, Gibbons RC. Focused Assessment with Sonography for Trauma. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2021. Accessed November 14, 2021.
  10. Holmes JF, Gladman A, Chang CH. Performance of abdominal ultrasonography in pediatric blunt trauma patients: a meta-analysis. J Pediatr Surg. 2007;42(9):1588-1594. doi:10.1016/j.jpedsurg.2007.04.023
  11. Liang T, Roseman E, Gao M, Sinert R. The Utility of the Focused Assessment With Sonography in Trauma Examination in Pediatric Blunt Abdominal Trauma: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2021;37(2):108-118. doi:10.1097/PEC.0000000000001755
  12. Holmes JF, Kelley KM, Wootton-Gorges SL, et al. Effect of Abdominal Ultrasound on Clinical Care, Outcomes, and Resource Use Among Children With Blunt Torso Trauma: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2017;317(22):2290-2296. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.6322
  13. Kornblith AE, Graf J, Addo N, et al. The Utility of Focused Assessment With Sonography for Trauma Enhanced Physical Examination in Children With Blunt Torso Trauma. Acad Emerg Med Off J Soc Acad Emerg Med. 2020;27(9):866-875. doi:10.1111/acem.13959
  14. Riera A, Hayward H, Torres Silva C, Chen L. Reevaluation of FAST Sensitivity in Pediatric Blunt Abdominal Trauma Patients: Should We Redefine the Qualitative Threshold for Significant Hemoperitoneum? Pediatr Emerg Care. 2021;37(12):e1012. doi:10.1097/PEC.0000000000001877
  15. Kornblith AE, Addo N, Plasencia M, et al. Development of a Consensus-Based Definition of Focused Assessment With Sonography for Trauma in Children. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(3):e222922. Published 2022 Mar 1. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.2922
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