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Ultrasound Safety–Is It Radiation?

Ultrasound Misconceptions!

ultrasound safety

Ah . . . one of my favorite things on this beautiful planet of ours is a beautiful sunny day at the beach. I love almost nothing more than that warmth on my skin and my toes buried in sugar-white sand. How about this shot, huh? Taken by yours truly on just such a day! However, because there is no good without its constant bad companion, our basking near the shore also leaves us susceptible to waves of radiation. Shoulder burns. Skin cancer. But let’s not confuse these waves with the sound waves of your diagnostic ultrasound! This post is dedicated to ultrasound safety, what ultrasound is, and what it isn’t.

First, let me help some of you moms out there relax right off the bat. The idea that ultrasound is a form of radiation is a complete untruth, rumor, or misconception. The technology behind ultrasound has long been documented–since its inception for medicine in the early 1900s. Anyone who has studied ultrasound, as well as every physician, engineer, and manufacturing company in relation to the technology can attest that ultrasound emits sound waves, not radiation waves. Those who have conducted biohazard testing in the field over the past forty years can do the same.

Despite what you may have read or heard, regardless of where, please do not believe this garbage! I hope you’ll read more about it here below. And please do not let this scare you away from your diagnostic scans. Your obstetrician is in the business of taking care of you and your baby–not to willingly subject you to radiation . . .

What Exactly is Ultrasound?

Ultrasound is just that. Ultra Sound, or sound waves that work at a frequency far beyond human hearing.  Like a fish-finder one might use on a boat. Or sonar used by the military. Human hearing ranges from about 20Hz (Hertz) to 20,000Hz (or 20kHz). When it comes to creating an ultrasound image, we work in the MHz range or millions of Hertz. An OB probe ranges from about 2MHz – 13MHz.

Ultrasound is a department of Radiology within a hospital, but it does not emit radiation.

Someone Is Spreading the Wealth

The heading is meant to be facetious. Unfortunately, someone is spreading only fear and proliferating ultrasound misinformation. Apparently, she is also someone who hasn’t done her homework. I was floored recently while doing research for my book when I came across a very popular pregnancy book (which will remain nameless) who actually wrote that ultrasound is radiation. If you have read this book, you know who I am referencing here.

She also claims that the Doppler used by physicians to obtain heart tones emits more radiation than scanning equipment! Wrong again, Doppler is ultrasound.

How does this happen? After all, she supposedly had the help of “knowledgeable” medical resources to write the book. Are they the only healthcare providers on the planet who don’t know Ultrasound is not X-Ray? And if not, why not?

I am unaware if this author has since recanted her falsehood. If she did, I give her credit. If not, she owes an explanation and apology to her faithful readers and social media followers. She is incorrectly influencing millions of parents-to-be with this misinformation, and it’s not okay. She is adding needless fuel to the fire, and moms worry about enough as it is.

Additionally, she then goes on to advise moms to only have an ultrasound if they really want one but to not have more than they need. To me, this begs the question…is it radiation or is it okay?

I would like to think she did not intentionally mislead her readership. But as a published author, ignorance is no excuse.

What is Radiation?

It is a transfer of energy that also travels in waves. As I mentioned at the start, radiation is found in light from the sun, microwaves, and X-Rays. But not sound waves. And, yes, exposure to radiation can cause cancer. One example is skin cancer from too much sun exposure.

Consider this. When you go to the dentist, what is the first thing asked of any woman? “Is it possible you might be pregnant?” If the answer is “Yes” or “I’m not sure,” they shield your belly to protect Baby from the minuscule dose of radiation from the super quick X-Ray of your teeth.

If an obstetrician’s job is to manage the health and care of Mother and Baby, and it is, why then would docs expose their patients directly to radiation? And what about sonographers? We all would be directly exposed numerous times a day, every week for the duration of our careers. None of us, patients nor sonographers times decades, have died from cancer due to ultrasound exposure.

Is Ultrasound Safe?

So far, with the prudent use of commercial technology, there have been no known bioeffects on the fetus, mother, or sonographer. Biohazard testing over decades has demonstrated the creation of heat in fetal tissues during higher than recommended settings and extended scanning times. The long-term effects are still being studied. Therefore, it is the feeling of ACOG (the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, ACR (American College of Radiology), and the AIUM (American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine) that the benefits outweigh the risk, and they justify the use of ultrasound only for diagnostic purposes.

They do not endorse the private entertainment ultrasound scan in the strip mall near you. These facilities are not regulated to maintain the same standards as medical practices for patient safety. They are not required to hire formally-trained and credentialled sonographers or to properly clean or maintain ultrasound probes or equipment. Be sure to do your research prior to scheduling your appointment in one of these facilities!

My Two Cents

One of the reasons I started this blog five years ago is because patients were misinformed – by Dr. Google, family, or friends. I expect as much from a random non-medical blogger, and I became even more enraged to find misinformation doled out on popular pregnancy sites. But in a published book? Unforgivable!

It’s one thing to express one’s opinion. But when you’re making tons of money by persuading expectant moms to adopt your line of thinking, you have the responsibility to get your info right. No one says anyone has to be a fan of ultrasound. And as a mom, you have the right to decline. Before you do so, speak with your provider. You need only to understand your choice. Any mom who ever delivered a baby with serious problems was happy to know about it in advance for planning and educational, emotional, and delivery purposes. This, in fact, is the purpose of obstetric ultrasound.

And if you’re all about moms and choices, and those choices are power? The power only comes from a parent who makes an informed choice, not one based on misinformation. It is my wish and goal to simply and accurately explain ultrasound for moms-to-be and stamp out the misconceptions. Understanding is also power. 🙂 I hope this helps you expectant mamas-to-be sleep a little better tonight.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and informed pregnancy!

As always, thanks for reading!

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Ultrasound Facts–What’s True vs What’s Not

General Ultrasound Facts

Patients have asked me these questions on a regular basis for years. Let’s get some ultrasound facts straight, shall we? I hope it’s helpful!

What’s the difference between ultrasound and sonogram?

Technically speaking, ultrasound is the study of the subject (the field of ultrasound) and a sonogram refers to the examination itself. Although we’re really not picky about what you call it.

Is ultrasound safe?

Biohazard testing over the past forty years reveals no ill effects of ultrasound on the fetus, mother, or sonographer. However, increasing levels of heat after scanning for several hours in one area can cause cavitation or the creation of bubbles. This is much longer than the time required for performing a diagnostic test. Since no one can predict the long-term effects, only the prudent and diagnostic use of the technology is recommended by ACOG, AIUM, and ACR. The benefits of the information from diagnostic exams for patient and physician currently outweigh any known risk.

Is Ultrasound radiation?

Ultrasound technology uses sound waves, NOT radio waves. I dedicate an entire post to just that subject in the link above. No radiation is emitted by ultrasound equipment or Dopplers utilized by your physician to detect Baby’s heartbeat. X-Ray emits radiation which is why, for example, your pregnant belly would be covered with a protective shield at your dentist’s office for X-Rays on your teeth.

Can my baby hear ultrasound? 

Nope, Baby cannot hear the sound waves:) Ultrasound is just that…sound waves that operate at a frequency far beyond human hearing. Human hearing ranges from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. Diagnostic ultrasound operates in the millions of Hertz. Ultrasound probes range from about 2 – 13MHz.

True story ~ I became a little distressed once when a patient asked me if ultrasound sounded like a jet to a fetus. She had just read this in a pregnancy magazine in our waiting room! I reassured her this was inaccurate. This experience marked one of the many reasons I wanted to start my blog–to get reliable info to new moms like you!

What’s the difference between 2D, 3D, and 4D?

Almost everyone has seen the gray clouds of 2D ultrasound at one time or another. 2D allows us to see through organs and inside your baby.

Most people are familiar with 3D imaging as a fun way to see the outside of their baby. Additionally, the best and cutest 3D images are obtained later in the 2nd Trimester or early in the 3rd. Baby’s skin has developed more fat at this point which makes for chubbier cheeks! Occasionally, a high-risk practice (MFM or Maternal Fetal Medicine) will usually also use 3D to assist in visualizing a fetal abnormality. We also frequently use the technology for GYN scans to attempt a better look at uterine shape and/or IUD placement.

4D can be described as 3D in motion or a live 3D image. So, where 3D is a still image, a 3D video of Baby moving is actually 4D.

ultrasound facts, 3D, 9 Weeks pregnant

3D 9-Week Embryo

Ultrasound Credentials for Sonographers

What’s your title? Are you a nurse or in X-Ray?

We’re not nurses, though some of us do cross over from RT (X-Ray) or other areas of Radiology. Sonographer, Ultrasonographer, or Ultrasound Technologist are a few of our titles. We are specifically and formally educated in the field of Ultrasound.

RDMS stands for Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer. A sonographer earns these credentials through ARDMS when he or she has passed a registry examination in Ultrasound Physics as well as his/her ultrasound specialty. A certified sonographer typically has at least two years of experience under his/her belt.

DMS refers to someone who has completed some sort of formal or on-the-job ultrasound training but has not yet taken/passed the registry examination.

What do you think of those 3D places?

Having posted on this often, I understand a patient’s desire to go, but I’m not a fan. Not everyone who scans an expectant mom in a 3D non-medical business is a certified OB sonographer. Some have no formal ultrasound training whatsoever! I know you may be surprised by this little-known fact, and so was I.

These businesses are not regulated like medical practices. They may not be knowledgeable of or follow guidelines for equipment maintenance. Ultrasound equipment that is not properly maintained can be an electrical hazard for mother and/or fetus! Do your research and at least ensure your sonographer possesses RDMS or, at least, DMS credentials. Please read the post in the link above!

Performing Your Exam

When can I expect to have sonograms in my pregnancy?

Every practice is different. Most physician’s order a first-trimester ultrasound examination to date the pregnancy. This is usually performed with a transvaginal probe. If no other problems necessitate another scan, you’ll receive your next exam around 18-20 Weeks. Most women know this scan as the anatomy screen where we evaluate fetal and maternal parts for abnormalities.

*Your doc does not order this exam to determine fetal sex!* However, most sonographers will happily provide the info if at all possible (as long as policy allows)! Also, important to note here is that determining sex is never a guarantee nor should it be an expectation. Sometimes, those Little Sweet Peas just won’t cooperate! You can read more here about those limitations. Note of advice for moms: Don’t pre-plan your Gender Reveal party for the same day as your ultrasound! The health of your pregnancy determines whether you will receive more ultrasound scans later in your pregnancy.

Can you predict how much my baby will weigh at birth?

While we can measure your baby’s head, belly, and femur for an educated (called EFW or Estimated Fetal Weight) guess for weight at the time of your scan, a large discrepancy for weight determination exists due to fetal position and sonographer skill. We can typically track a trend for large or small babies. We know the average gained weight in the last few weeks is about 1/2 lb per week. However, every baby is different!

Ultrasound Facts About Fetal Sex

Most expectant moms today already know this little fact. The ultrasound machine is never “wrong” in determining fetal sex. Actually, it is the observer who is incorrect!

Guessing the wrong sex can be due to one or a combination of many factors. It is possible your baby was in a difficult position to see well. Maybe you were too early in your pregnancy for an accurate guess. In addition, an overall poor view can also limit fetal sex determination!

Facts About Your Results

Yes, the sonographer can read your examination. However, your OB/GYN physician or radiologist must ultimately interpret the images and report we create. Consequently, only your physician can legally give you results! Read more about why here.

However, most of us are more than happy to educate you about what you see on the monitor (minus a diagnosis!). I loved sharing how we measure and pointing out all your Baby’s parts for any inquisitive parents or family.

~*~

Feel free to email me at wombviewerblog@gmail.com with your comments or questions!

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