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Transillumination

Definition

Transillumination is the shining of a light through a body area or organ to check for abnormalities.

How the Test is Performed

The room lights are dimmed or turned off so that the area of the body may be seen more easily. A bright light is then pointed at that area. Areas where this test is used include the:

  • Head
  • Scrotum
  • Chest of a premature or newborn infant
  • Breast of an adult female

Transillumination is also sometimes used to find blood vessels.

In some locations in the stomach and intestine, the light can be seen through the skin and tissues at the time of upper endoscopy and colonoscopy.

How to Prepare for the Test

No preparation is necessary for this test.

How the Test will Feel

There is no discomfort with this test.

Why the Test is Performed

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

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.)

In general, transillumination is not an accurate enough test to rely on. Further tests, such as an x-ray, CT, or ultrasound, are needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Normal Results

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

What Abnormal Results Mean

Areas filled with abnormal air or fluid 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.

Risks

There are no risks associated with this test.

References

Ferri FF. Hydrocele. In: Ferri FF, ed. Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2016. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2016:647.

Katz VL, Dotters D. Breast diseases: diagnosis and treatment of benign and malignant disease. In: Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Katz VL, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2012:chap 15.

Lissauer T. Physical examination of the newborn. In: Martin RJ, Fanaroff AA, Walsh MC. Fanaroff and Martin's Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Diseases of the Fetus and Infant. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 29.

Review Date:8/14/2015
Reviewed By:Subodh K. Lal, MD, gastroenterologist at Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia, Austell, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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Outcome Data

No data available for this condition/procedure.

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