Be Cautious with Elective Ultrasound

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had an X-ray.

Are ultrasounds as dangerous as x-rays to pregnant women?
(“Hand X-ray” by Trace Meek. Flickr)

Did the professional performing the X-ray ask if you were pregnant before they continued?

If you have a set of ovaries, you probably were asked about possible pregnancies.  That’s because in the mid-twentieth century, scientists were coming to the conclusion that the radiation from X-rays was dangerous – especially to unborn children! Remember, radiation was still a novel phenomena.  Medical professionals were able to see inside a womb to detect fetal anomalies and multiple pregnancies – why would anyone think this was bad?

Doctors had been using X-rays to support their patients’ prenatal care for nearly 50 years! It took awhile for the information and data to create institutional practices that balanced safety and risk for patients – including pregnant patients.

Knowing this, when I read that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a consumer warning asking parents to avoid “keepsake” ultrasound images and heartbeat dopplers, I could only shake my head.

Ultrasonography uses tools called transducers to introduce high frequency sound waves to a body to create an image.  Those ultrasound waves can create heat and even bubbles in body tissues.  It can be dangerous.  That’s why radiologists – the type of doctor who works primarily with imaging through x-ray, ultrasound and MRI – go through a specialty residency of four years and have to maintain certain licensing.

The judicious use of ultrasound technology by an appropriately trained professional is not in question here.  Just like modern-day X-rays, diagnostic ultrasound can benefit one’s care when health care professionals can focus on what is going on inside a body with as little invasion as possible.  The trouble presents itself in elective, commercial use – at places that promise they can give you a sneak peak at baby’s sex, or that they will give you a “4D” video of baby sucking his or her thumb.

What if an inattentive or poorly trained sonographer focuses the transducer into one spot for too long?  Has there been enough research on the effects of elevated temperature on a fetus?  Is this extended ultrasound session going to have any positive impact on the care babies and parents receive? Is there pressure to submit to “upgrade” from a prescribed medical procedure to an elective commercial product?  What epigenetic effects will we know about in 50 years?

There’s too many what-ifs for me.  I will not ever buy into elective keepsake ultrasounds. There is no value in that for me.  Even though the perceived risk is low, I have no desire to give my money to this kind of business. No, thank you.

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