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Ultrasound - just looking can hurt!
Although women are now routinely offered several ultrasound scans during a pregnancy, costing health services worldwide millions of pounds every year, the safety of taking ultrasound pictures has never been tested. This assumption of safety has led to:
  • researchers who are studying foetal behaviour reassuring women volunteering to take part in their trials that exposures of up to an hour and a half are safe

  • commercial companies offering parents lengthy ultrasound ‘videos’ of their baby moving inside the womb. (The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that ultrasound cannot be considered harmless, even at low levels, and is considering regulatory action against these companies)

  • companies being granted safety licenses to offer parents- to-be hand-held Doppler ultrasound devices with which, theoretically, they could expose their babies to hours of ultrasound every day

Several trials suggest that Governments should be more concerned, e.g.:

  • When women at risk of giving birth preterm were examined once a week to determine the state of their cervix, just over half (52%) of those who were examined using ultrasound went on to have a preterm birth compared to a quarter (25%) of those given a manual pelvic examination.
    Ultrasound scanning gave no benefit over manual examination [1]

  • When 1,246 UK women were given a monthly Doppler ultrasound scan of their umbilical and uterine arteries from the 19th to the 32nd week of pregnancy, seventeen of their babies died at or around the time of birth, as opposed to only seven in the 1,229-strong unDopplered control group. The Doppler ultrasound scanning had only identified a possible problem in one of the babies [2]

Ed.- (i) AIMS Journal’s Jean Robinson is concerned that no research has ever been done on the effects of:

  • exposing even younger foetuses to ultrasound, an increasingly common practice

  • submitting foetuses to exposures of an hour or more of ultraasound, as in the commercial applications described above

She also points out that:

  • because ultrasound is now almost universally used, it has become almost impossible to assemble a control group of children who have never been scanned. Only degrees of exposure can now be compared

  • the claim that ultrasound encourages bonding between mother and child has also never been demonstrated scientifically

(ii) Other studies, however, suggest that ultrasound is more efficient than manual pelvic examination at detecting major malformations and twins early. [3]



1] Lorenz,RP et al. American Journal of Obstetric Gynaecology 1990;162(6):1603-607
[2] Davies,JL et al. Lancet 1992;ii:1299-303
[3] Saari-Kemppainen,A et al. Lancet 1990;336(8712):387-91

[(11453) Beverley Beech. AIMS Journal


Ultrasound - is it worth it?

Having one or more ultrasound scan to see your baby in the womb has become almost the norm. Although there has never been any significant research to prove it, the practice is assumed totally safe by doctors and parents-to-be alike. In fact, the opposite is true.

Three randomised controlled trials of Doppler Sound, the powerful form of ultrasound now used in most hospitals, have found an up to fourfold increase in perinatal (just before or after birth) deaths. [1] One large study found 20 miscarriages in the group given ultrasound scans, but none in the group which was not. [2] Another reported a doubling of pre-term labour in the scanned group. [3] Another linked ultrasound scanning to retardation of the baby's growth in the womb. [4]

Animal-based studies suggest that there may be subtler effects which have, to date, not been measured in humans. Monkeys repeatedly exposed to ultrasound showed clear behavioural problems, such as social withdrawal. Another study which exposed monkeys to ultrasound found evidence of low body weight and poor muscle tone.

Experiments with guinea pigs showed that ultrasound scanning could raise the temperature of brain tissue near bone by as much as 5.1°C. [5] If the same occurs in human babies at the time the developing brain is at its most vulnerable (16 weeks old, when ultrasound scanning tends to be carried out), it is possible that vital cells could be damaged or destroyed with little possibility of replacement. This could lead to long-term neurological damage. [6] Changes in brain development sometimes lead to lefthandedness. [7] Not a problem in itself, but lefthandedness is linked to an increased risk of dyslexia, [8] learning difficulties [9] and speech delay. [10]

The argument for ultrasound scanning revolves around its ability to detect abnormalities early enough to abort. Firstly, several studies have shown that ultrasound does not improve outcomes for babies overall, and that there is no medical reason to propose an ultrasound scan in 80% of cases. Secondly, ultrasound scans can only detect a handful of the 5000+ potential chromosomal abnormalities. It is most successful at detecting Down's syndrome, picking up 80% of cases, but even here can diagnose Down's syndrome when it isn't actually present. Scanning can pick up `things that shouldn't be there' - resulting, again, in the abortion of healthy foetuses - when that `thing' often disappears during the pregnancy. Parents who decide not to abort are put through months of unnecessary worry. In one instance at a hospital in Cardiff (Wales), ultrasound scans detected `dead' babies which were subsequently found to be alive just before the induced miscarriage was to be performed.

Finally, ultrasound scans can pick up abnormalities about which nothing can be done.

[1] Lancet 1992;340:1229-303
[2] Lancet 1990;336:387-91
[3] American Journal of Obstetric Gynaecology 1990;162:1603-10
[4] Lancet 1993;342:887-91
[5] Horder,MM et al. Ultrasound in Medicine & Biology 1998;24(5):697-704
[6] Birth 1986;13:29-37
[7] Kieler,H et al. Epidemiology 2001;12(6):618-23
[8] Obstetrics & Gynaecology 1984;63:194-200
[9] Neurotox. Teratol. 1995;17:179-88
[10] Canadian Med. Assoc. Jnl. 1993;14 9:1435-40

(6698) Pat Thomas. Natural Parent