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- Ultrasound, Is it Safe?

Last Updated: 6/12/2011

What are the risks of ultrasound during pregnancy, havenít they been proven safe?

Itís always prudent to remember that we DONíT know more than we DO know.  There are many reports that say ultrasound is safe for use in pregnancy.  However, there are not any studies that prove its safety.  Ultrasound has been around for such a relatively short amount of time, that we do not have data on long-term effects.  We are basically conducting a population-wide experiment in ultrasound safety.  What we DO know, is that ultrasound causes heating and cavitation.  It is not clear whether there are any long-term effects of the diagnostic ultrasound in use today, scientists do know from laboratory studies that ultrasound at high intensities does create immediate effects at the time of exposure. From the studies that have been done, we know that in addition to heating, or thermal effects, ultrasound also creates nonthermal effects, also known as mechanical effects. These nonthermal effects include audible sounds, the movement of cells in liquid, electrical changes in cell membranes, shrinking and expansion of bubbles in liquid, and pressure changes. It has been said that the baby hears sound the equivalent of a freight train during an ultrasound and we know that they will move away from the transducer.  What we do NOT know is what happens because of these changes.  We do NOT know what the immediate or the long term effects of these changes are.  

A vaginal ultrasound, where the transducer is placed high in the vagina, is much closer to the developing baby.  This is used mostly in early pregnancy, when abdominal scans can give poor pictures.  However, with vaginal ultrasound, there is little intervening tissue to shield the baby, who is at a vulnerable stage of development, and exposure levels will be high.  This is used mainly for dating or confirmation of date.  While the transvaginal ultrasound produces a clearer image, it may also create false positive results.  This can lead to unnecessary testing to further evaluate the condition, with its accompanying physical and emotional impact. It would be of paramount prudence to weigh the benefits of the test with the unknown risks when making a decision about using ultrasound technology.  What this means to you, is that it is YOUR body and YOUR baby, YOU will raise the child and live with the results of the choices you have made, and if it's important to YOU, and YOU feel that the benefits outweigh the risks, then YOU can choose to use the technology.  

Routine ultrasounds are not recommended by any medical authority.  Not the AMA, not ACOG.  Some reasons that ultrasounds ARE recommended are:
  • Suspected fetal abnormalities
  • The presence of twins and their position near term, if unclear
  • Suspected breech presentation if unclear with palpation alone
  • Suspected cervical or pelvic obstruction (previa, tumors, etc.) or other intrauterine abnormalities, especially if accompanied by bright red bleeding
  • Suspected miscarriage
  • Suspected fetal demise
  • Suspected size/dates discrepancies that have not responded to nutritional adjustments
  • Used in biophysical profile recommended in pregnancies carried PAST 42 weeks

Websites urging caution about routine ultrasound use:
Websites that contend that ultrasound is probably safe:
Just because your physician regularly recommends ultrasound does NOT mean that you MUST have one. Nevermind THEM, listen to your OWN instincts.

Holistic Midwifery Volume 1 by Anne Frye, CPM
Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering by Sarah J. Buckley MD
Wagner M. Ultrasound:  more harm than good?  Midwifery Today Int Midwife 1999(50):28-30

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