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Transillumination

Definition

Transillumination is the shining of a light through a body cavity or organ.

How the test is performed

The room lights are dimmed or turned off so that the appropriate part of the body may be seen more easily. A bright light is then pointed at a location on the body, typically the head, scrotum, chest of a premature or newborn infant, or breast of an adult female.

Transillumination is also sometimes used to find blood vessels.

How to prepare for the test

No preparation is necessary for this test.

How the test will feel

There is no discomfort associated with this test.

Why the test is performed

This test may be done along with other tests to diagnose:

  • Hydrocephalus in newborns or infants
  • Hydrocele in males
  • Breast lesions or cysts in females

In newborns, a bright halogen light may be used to transilluminate the chest cavity if there are signs of a collapsed lung or air around the heart. (Transillumination through the chest is only possible on small newborns.)

Normal Values

Normal findings depend on the area being evaluated, and the normal tissue of that region.

What abnormal results mean

Areas filled with abnormal air or fluid will light up when they should not. For example, in a darkened room, the head of a newborn with possible hydrocephalus will light up when this procedure is done.

When done on the breast:

  • Internal areas will be dark to black if there is a lesion and bleeding has occurred (because blood does not transilluminate).
  • Benign tumors tend to appear red.
  • Malignant tumors are brown to black.

What the risks are

There are no risks associated with this test.

Special considerations

In general, transillumination is not a particularly good test for any of these above-mentioned disorders, and further tests, such as an x-ray or ultrasound, are needed to confirm the diagnosis.

References

Haddad GG, Green TP. Diagnostic approach to respiratory disease. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 371.

Elder JS. Disorders and anomalies of the scrotal contents. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 545.

Valea FA, Katz VL. Breast diseases: Diagnosis and treatment of benign and malignant disease. In: Katz VL, Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2007:chap 15.

Review Date: 12/7/2009

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