What is an Ultrasound?

Medical sonography (ultrasonography) is an ultrasound-based diagnostic medical imaging technique used to visualize muscles, tendons, and many internal organs, to capture their size, structure and any pathological lesions with real time tomographic images. Ultrasound has been used by sonographers to image the human body for at least 50 years and has become one of the most widely used diagnostic tools in modern medicine. The technology is relatively inexpensive and portable, especially when compared with other modalities, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT). Ultrasound is also used to visualize fetuses during routine and emergency prenatal care. Such diagnostic applications used during pregnancy are referred to as obstetric sonography.

As currently applied in the medical field, properly performed ultrasound poses no known risks to the patient.

Sonography is generally described as a "safe test" because it does not use mutagenic ionizing radiation, which can pose hazards such as chromosome breakage and cancer development. However, ultrasonic energy has two potential physiological effects: it enhances inflammatory response; and it can heat soft tissue. Ultrasound energy produces a mechanical pressure wave through soft tissue. This pressure wave may cause microscopic bubbles in living tissues and distortion of the cell membrane, influencing ion fluxes and intracellular activity. When ultrasound enters the body, it causes molecular friction and heats the tissues slightly. This effect is typically very minor as normal tissue perfusion dissipates most of the heat, but with high intensity, it can also cause small pockets of gas in body fluids or tissues to expand and contract/collapse in a phenomenon called cavitation; however this is not known to occur at diagnostic power levels used by modern diagnostic ultrasound units.

In 2008, the AIUM published a 130-page report titled "American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine Consensus Report on Potential Bioeffects of Diagnostic Ultrasound" stating that there are indeed some potential risks to administering ultrasound tests, which include "postnatal thermal effects, fetal thermal effects, postnatal mechanical effects, fetal mechanical effects, and bioeffects considerations for ultrasound contrast agents." The long-term effects of tissue heating and cavitation have shown decreases in the size of red blood cells in cattle when exposed to intensities higher than diagnostic levels. However, long term effects due to ultrasound exposure at diagnostic intensity is still unknown.

There are several studies that indicate the harmful side effects on animal fetuses associated with the use of sonography on pregnant mammals. A Yale study in 2006 suggested exposure to ultrasound affects fetal brain development in mice. A typical fetal scan, including evaluation for fetal malformations, typically takes 10–30 minutes. The study showed that rodent brain cells failed to migrate to their proper positions and remained scattered in incorrect parts of the brain. This misplacement of brain cells during their development is linked to disorders ranging from "mental retardation and childhood epilepsy to developmental dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia." However, this effect was only detectable after 30 minutes of continuous scanning. No link has yet been made between the test results on animals such as mice and the possible effects on humans. Although the possibility exists that biological effects on humans may be identified in the future, currently most doctors feel that based on available information the benefits to patients outweigh the risks.

Obstetric ultrasound can be used to identify many conditions that would be harmful to the mother and the baby. Many health care professionals consider the risk of leaving these conditions undiagnosed to be much greater than the very small risk, if any, associated with undergoing an ultrasound scan. According to Cochrane Review, routine ultrasound in early pregnancy (less than 24 weeks) appears to enable better gestational age assessment, earlier detection of multiple pregnancies and earlier detection of clinically unsuspected fetal malformation at a time when termination of pregnancy is possible.

Sonography is used routinely in obstetric appointments during pregnancy, but the FDA discourages its use for non-medical purposes such as fetal keepsake videos and photos, even though it is the same technology used in hospitals.

Obstetric ultrasound is primarily used to:

  • Date the pregnancy (gestational age)
  • Confirm fetal viability
  • Determine location of fetus, intrauterine vs ectopic
  • Check the location of the placenta in relation to the cervix
  • Check for the number of fetuses (multiple pregnancy)
  • Check for major physical abnormalities.
  • Assess fetal growth (for evidence of intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR))
  • Check for fetal movement and heartbeat.
  • Determine the sex of the baby

Unfortunately, results are occasionally wrong, producing a false positive (the Cochrane Collaboration is a relevant effort to improve the reliability of health care trials). False detection may result in patients being warned of birth defects when no such defect exists. Sex determination is only accurate after 12 weeks gestation. When balancing risk and reward, there are recommendations to avoid the use of routine ultrasound for low risk pregnancies. In many countries ultrasound is used routinely in the management of all pregnancies.

According to the European Committee of Medical Ultrasound Safety (ECMUS)

"Ultrasonic examinations should only be performed by competent personnel who are trained and updated in safety matters. Ultrasound produces heating, pressure changes and mechanical disturbances in tissue. Diagnostic levels of ultrasound can produce temperature rises that are hazardous to sensitive organs and the embryo/fetus. Biological effects of non-thermal origin have been reported in animals but, to date, no such effects have been demonstrated in humans, except when a microbubble contrast agent is present." Nonetheless, care should be taken to use low power settings and avoid pulsed wave scanning of the fetal brain unless specifically indicated in high risk pregnancies.

It should be noted that obstetrics is not the only use of ultrasound. Soft tissue imaging of many other parts of the body is conducted with ultrasound. Other scans routinely conducted are cardiac, renal, liver and gallbladder (hepatic). Other common applications include musculo-skeletal imaging of muscles, ligaments and tendons, ophthalmic ultrasound (eye) scans and superficial structures such as testicle, thyroid, salivary glands and lymph nodes. Because of the real time nature of ultrasound, it is often used to guide interventional procedures such as fine needle aspiration FNA or biopsy of masses for cytology or histology testing in the breast, thyroid, liver, kidney, lymph nodes, muscles and joints.

Ultrasound scanners have different Doppler-techniques to visualize arteries and veins. The most common is colour doppler or power doppler, but also other techniques like b-flow are used to show bloodflow in an organ. By using pulsed wave doppler or continuous wave doppler bloodflow velocities can be calculated.

Figures released for the period 2005-2006 by UK Government (Department of Health) show that non-obstetric ultrasound examinations contributed to more than 65% of the total number of ultrasound scans conducted.

Ultrasound is also increasingly being used in trauma and first aid cases, with emergency ultrasound becoming a staple of most EMT response teams.

Occupational exposure to ultrasound in excess of 120 dB may lead to hearing loss. Exposure in excess of 155 dB may produce heating effects that are harmful to the human body, and it has been calculated that exposures above 180 dB may lead to death.

Further Reading


This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article on "Ultrasound" All material adapted used from Wikipedia is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Wikipedia® itself is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

Last Updated: Jan 18, 2014

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