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Benefits and Risks Associated with Ultrasound During Pregnancy

Benefits and Risks Associated with Ultrasound During Pregnancy

An ultrasound echo or sonographic equipment is a device used in various fields. In the medical field, it is commonly used to obtain images of the internal organs of the human body including that of a fetus during pregnancy. This HerHaleness article offers an insight into the benefits and risks associated with the use of ultrasound during pregnancy.
Snehal Motkar
A standard 2D ultrasound image can depict only one section of the fetus at a time. For instance, if a picture shows the head and body of the fetus, it may not include the arms and legs.
In the medical field, ultrasonography refers to technology that uses high frequency sound waves to produce images of the internal organs of the human body, allowing doctors and trained professionals to examine them. During an ultrasound, extremely high frequency sound waves, which are not audible to humans, are directed from a vibrating crystal in a hand-held scanner called a transducer, at the body part to be examined. The transducer uses these sound waves to create images of the body part being examined. However, these images are of a very low quality. Ultrasounds are commonly used to examine the abdominal and pelvic organs and the breast tissue.
There are 4 types of medical ultrasounds currently available – 2D, 3D, 4D, and Doppler. The most common of these is the 2D ultrasound, used for most diagnostic and obstetric situations. 2D ultrasounds result in a series of flat, two-dimensional cross-section images. With advancements in medical technology, 3D ultrasound came into picture and replaced the standard 2D representations of fetus images. In this technique, the scanning of the tissues is done at different angles and the data received is reconstructed into a three-dimensional image. A 3D representation offers a more realistic and complete image of the developing fetus.
4D ultrasound technology, which includes the additional feature of movement, has now replaced the 3D technique for obtaining better results in a fetus examination. Of all the techniques, this ultrasound procedure offers the most realistic representations of the growing fetus. 3D and 4D tests are also capable of detecting abnormalities, which are not easily detectable in 2D representations. While the above ultrasound procedures show the internal tissues and structures, a Doppler ultrasound is useful to examine the blood flow and the pressure within blood vessels. It bounces high-frequency sound waves off moving blood cells and records the changes in the frequency of sound waves that return to the transducer. The data recorded is presented in the form of images depicting the speed and the direction of blood flow.
Benefits of Ultrasound During Pregnancy

► The ionizing radiation present in X-ray techniques proved to be harmful for the growing fetus, and hence, ultrasound emerged as a better alternative. Ultrasounds do not have any embryotoxic effects on the fetus. Also, there are certain conditions occurring in the soft tissues of the body, which may go unnoticed in an X-ray, but can be clearly seen in an ultrasound procedure.

► A transvaginal ultrasound may be beneficial in cases when the transabdominal procedure does not provide clear images of the fetus, especially during the first trimester, when the fetus is not grown enough to lift out of the pelvic cavity. It is also useful to determine whether it is an ectopic pregnancy, if there are multiple fetuses, or if there is a possibility of a miscarriage.

► In some cases, a transabdominal procedure may not work due to excessive air in the bowel, which is a poor conductor of sound waves. In such a situation, a transvaginal procedure may do the trick and get clearer visual representations of the fetus.

► A transabdominal ultrasound is a non-invasive procedure that rules out the possibilities of any infection or pain, and hence, is a safe procedure for both the mother and the baby.

► Early detection of abnormalities in the fetus provides scope for further tests to confirm the diagnosis, like chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis.

Risks Associated with Ultrasound During Pregnancy

► Studies carried out in the past claimed that ultrasounds were not harmful for the fetus in any way. However, these studies took place around 2 - 3 decades ago when the scanning intensities were way lesser than those used today. Hence, those studies may not bear any relation with the current ultrasound examinations and the risks associated with them.

► Some recent studies suggest that an ultrasound might play a major role in slower growth of the fetus, while others say that there is a possibility of the fetus being falsely diagnosed and claimed to be at higher risk. This may result in a cycle of more and more tests increasing the stress level of the mother as well the family.

► A transvaginal scanning may present mild discomfort, as an ultrasound probe is inserted in the vagina prior to the scan. However, the pain or discomfort should last only a few seconds, and when the probe is inserted gently into the vagina, it should subside.

► The most important concern associated with an ultrasound is the method of its usage. Under-trained staff or inadequate equipment may be harmful for the baby. The inefficiency of the practitioner may result in an overdose of ultrasonic waves to the baby.

► Ultrasound is an energy and overexposure to this energy through frequent ultrasound examinations may result in low birth weight of the baby.

It is important to note that none of the prenatal tests are mandatory, and you can deny any or all tests if the health care provider does not give valid reasons for performing the tests. It is your right to know the reason for a particular test, what will happen during the test, if there are any after-effects associated with it, and what will happen if the test is not performed.
Disclaimer: This HerHaleness article is for informative purposes only and does not, in any way, intend to replace the advice of a medical professional.