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Pregnant Women Get More Ultrasounds, Without Clear Medical Need

July 23, 2015

American women have been getting fetal ultrasound scans at sharply higher rates than before, and parents have turned the images of their unborn into fixtures of social media. In 2014, usage in the U.S. of the most common fetal-ultrasound procedures averaged 5.2 per delivery, up 92 percent from 2004.

A joint statement in May 2014 from several medical societies, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, calls for one or two ultrasounds in low-risk, complication-free pregnancies.

Experts in fetal medicine have long recommended women undergo one ultrasound around the 20th week of a low-risk pregnancy, and in recent years they have come to recommend an earlier one as well, around the 12th week. About 80 percent of pregnancies are low-risk.

Fetal ultrasound in humans has never been shown to cause harm. However:

  • Nearly all research supporting its safety was conducted using equipment made before 1992, when the procedure produced about one-eighth the acoustic energy than today.
  • Studies have suggested many operators don't pay close attention to safety gauges while they are performing procedures.
  • Some animal experiments have suggested ill effects of ultrasound on embryos of mice and chickens. 
  • A 2006 Yale University study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found neurological abnormalities in mice exposed to ultrasound in utero.
  • Multiple fetal ultrasounds can raise false alarms, including overestimation of fetal size that can lead to potentially unnecessary c-sections.
  • Research suggests multiple scans don\'t provide better outcomes in pregnancies.

Source: Kevin Helliker, "Pregnant Women Get More Ultrasounds, Without Clear Medical Need," The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2015


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