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Ultrasounds During Pregnancy - Purpose, When, Types, and Potential Risks?

Prenatal ultrasounds are typically routine during pregnancy. There are known benefits of ultrasounds; however, recently, many question the need and even possible associated risks. When it comes to your pregnancy, you and your health care provider can discuss the need for and amount of ultrasounds throughout your pregnancy. A basic knowledge of the purpose of ultrasounds, types of ultrasounds, and common expectations regarding ultrasounds can prepare you for this conversation.

Purpose of Ultrasounds

Ultrasounds utilize high frequency sound waves on the abdomen and pelvic region in order to create a sonogram, or picture, of internal structures. The sonogram shows the characteristics of soft tissue and organs. During pregnancy, ultrasounds are routinely used to show pictures of the baby and placenta. Initially, ultrasounds are used to confirm fetal heartbeat, determine the due date/gestational age, number of fetuses (single, twins, etc), and to rule out ectopic pregnancies. They are also used to ensure proper fetal growth and development, gender, assess for birth defects, placenta health, baby weight and fetal position.  

When to have an Ultrasound?

Ultrasounds can be performed throughout pregnancy. Initially, ultrasounds are performed around weeks 18-20 in order to confirm placenta health, and proper fetal growth and development. Gender can be determined around 20 weeks. Ultrasounds may be performed earlier to determine the due date or gestational age. Based on medical necessity, additional ultrasounds can be used to monitor baby and placenta health, quantity of amniotic fluid, fetal weight, and fetal position. Ultrasounds are recommended when the baby exceeds their due date to confirm the health and well-being of baby and baby’s environment.

What to expect?

Traditional, 3D, and 4D ultrasounds are non invasive. A transducer and gel are used on the external surface of the abdomen in order to create the sonogram. Trans-vaginal ultrasounds utilize a transducer wand that is directly inserted into the vagina. Typically, all ultrasounds are done in a fairly quickly manner, ranging from five to thirty minutes long. Ultrasounds are virtually painless, exceptions include the discomfort of the cold temperature of the gel, discomfort of a full bladder with trans-vaginal ultrasounds, and moments of increased external pressure of the sonographer. A physical copy of the sonogram is typically provided that visit for  your enjoyment and sharing with friends, family, and social media.

Types of Ultrasounds:

There are many prenatal ultrasounds options including the traditional 2D (2 Dimensional)  ultrasound and more advanced 3D, 4D, and trans-vaginal.  3D and 4D ultrasounds have the ability to illustrate a more in depth and detailed image of internal structures. A 4D also shows movement in real time, similar to a video. Typically, 2D ultrasounds provide enough information; however, 3D and 4D are utilized to provide a more detailed examination for concerns of fetal abnormalities.

Safety and Side Effects of Ultrasounds

All ultrasounds are deemed routine and safe for mother and baby. There is no radiation exposure, instead high frequency sound waves are used. Risk and side effects of repetitive ultrasound exposure are not fully understood or studied. According to the American Pregnancy Organization, ultrasounds should only be used when medically indicated. Limiting the amount of ultrasound exposure is the most ideal way to avoid any potential risks. Once baby is here, take all the pictures your heart desires, until then, try to keep the number of ultrasounds to a minimum, when medically necessary.    

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