Is Ultrasound Imaging Safe?

Posted by Kathryn Wilcox on May 01, 2015

The excitement of knowing you are pregnant cannot be understated. It very understandable that you want to know what your baby looks like. Does that explain why ultrasound imaging has become the most widely used medical imaging technique done during pregnancy?

We should first understand what the ultrasound procedure really is. The equipment uses high frequency sound waves which move through a transducer and special gel smoothed on your abdomen into the body. The sound waves are heated and penetrate the mother’s abdomen and amniotic fluid until they encounter the baby and then bounce back to a computer and create an image.  There is also a special Doppler ultrasound unit to check the baby’s heartbeat.

Ultrasounds are considered safe, use no radiation and are painless. They are considered a medical tool, which allows the doctor to diagnose and even treat medical conditions prior to birth. They help the doctor to also monitor the health of the mother who is at risk because of diabetics, has high blood pressure or other medical condition. They have helped to save at risk babies who would have died without the early intervention. In certain high risk conditions doctors have even done surgery with the child still in the womb - the ultrasound tech helping the doctor to see where he is operating!

The image is black and white, and what can be seen depends on the development of the baby. While some are done as early as 6 to 8 weeks to confirm the intrauterine pregnancy, all you will see is a little blob about a quarter of an inch long and you may even see the heart beating, which resembles the blinking cursor on your computer. By the time you are in your 12th week of pregnancy, the ultrasound will show a real baby, that is approximately 2 and one half inches long and weighs about one third of a pound. Your baby will have to be at least 22 to 23 weeks developed before he weighs approximately one pound and has grown to the length of about 1l and a half inches long. The infant does not put on much weight until the last trimester. By then you will be kicked and punched so much that you start to think that you are going to give birth to a kick boxer!

Ultrasounds are considered an optional procedure and only ordered when a doctor has a medical concern to investigate. But they are made available as a “courtesy” to new parents who request them.  Commercial ultrasound facilities have cropped up in some malls, offering you “cute keepsake pictures” for a fee and promise to help you “see” the sex of your baby. The American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine and the American Congress Obstetricians and Gynecologists are concerned about these facilities because they may not have properly trained employees. You should also be aware that your health insurance may not cover the cost.

The FDA has published an opinion on this topic with the caution that "Although there is a lack of evidence of any harm due to ultrasound imaging and heartbeat monitors, prudent use of these devices by trained health care providers is important," says Shahram Vaezy, Ph.D., an FDA biomedical engineer. "Ultrasound can heat tissues slightly, and in some cases, it can also produce very small bubbles (cavitation) in some tissues."

So if your doctor is recommending an ultrasound or you just want one, ask about the pros and cons before proceeding and trust your doctor’s advice. Remember, you are that very tiny baby’s protector and decision maker, not just the one who is responsible for the photo album!