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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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Gender Determination–Is It Listed on My Report?

Gender Determination in an
Ultrasound Report?

I’ve received questions lately regarding where to find fetal sex or gender determination in an ultrasound report. Can you always find this information in a report?

The short answer? No, not always.

Actually, we mostly do not record fetal sex, and it’s mostly not important to your doc. Typically, fetal sex is not pertinent information to the examination. Though parents may desire it, physicians don’t need the gender determination to manage your care and that of your baby if both are healthy. The above is true for most general OB practitioners in the US. However, every physician practices a little differently, and one can certainly dictate if he or she wants this info on all patient reports (if possible to determine). The case may be different if you are seeing a high-risk OB doc, aka a perinatologist. Their reports consist of much greater detail and may possibly include a fetal sex/gender guess.

Example of a Blank Report

gender determination, ultrasound report
In the images of a sample report taken from a monitor, you’ll notice there is a whole host of blanks to fill, but fetal sex is not one of them. On the first page where you see Sex: Other, this refers to the patient. Patient demographics were not entered here, so the Sex option defaulted to Other. We always include your LMP or EDC/EDD – aka baby due date. The larger blue space would be filled with fetal measurements, estimates of gestational age, and fetal weight as they are obtained.

OB ultrasound report, gender determination, ultrasound report

OB ultrasound report, gender determination, ultrasound report
In the pages above, you’ll note the list of fetal organs and structures we attempt to document on a mid-pregnancy anatomy screen. We only fill out the section called BPP in the third trimester when your doc orders this particular examination. And the CVP is usually only filled out when performing a Fetal Echo or detailed heart examination.

Exception to the Gender Determination Rule

There always seems to be at least one exception to every rule. Because the responsibility of a sonographer is to search out structural malformations, we also have to report suspicions of abnormal external genitalia. In other circumstances, we may see particular abnormalities that we might group together, as in the case of certain syndromes. Sometimes, knowing fetal sex helps physicians either support or rule out a particular chromosomal or structural problem. Some of these are gender specific. In the pic below, we have a designated space on a Comments page to expound on our findings. We can add fetal sex here if we feel it is pertinent information to the findings.
OB ultrasound report, gender determination, ultrasound report
In some countries, fetal sex is neither reported nor discussed with parents due to the cultural preference of one sex over another. And some facilities are beginning to incorporate policies against providing parents with this news due to litigious reasons. Unfortunately, such is life in the good ol’ US. Facilities want to limit their liability for guessing incorrectly by simply not allowing their sonographers to guess at all.
So, if you don’t want to know your baby’s sex (or even if you do!), don’t expect your ultrasound report to disclose that information. Your sonographer creates the images and report. We only include what we need and leave out anything we don’t!
Best wishes for happy and healthy!

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