Do frequent ultrasounds increase risk of birth injury?

Photos have long been a prominent element of social media. Residents of Worcester are probably accustomed to viewing the personal photos of their friends and family on a regular basis. One popular type of photo that tends to be shared frequently is the ultrasound picture of a developing baby. However, recent reports indicate that ultrasounds may be performed more often than needed.

According to a statement issued last year from multiple medical societies, women with low-risk pregnancies with no complications should receive one or two ultrasounds. Nonetheless, an average of over five ultrasounds per delivery was performed on pregnant women during 2014. This figure is up over 90 percent from 2004. The data, which come from an analysis by the non-profit FAIR Health, Inc., also show that some expecting mothers had an ultrasound done at every one of their doctor's visits.

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What are the risks of frequent ultrasounds? Can they cause a birth injury or other negative effects? Startlingly, the long-term injury potential is not entirely known. Most of the research in support of ultrasound safety has been conducted on equipment made prior to 1992, over 20 years ago. Before 1992, ultrasounds generally produced one-eighth of the acoustic energy that the same procedure can emit today. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned last year that the heating and cavitation of tissue that ultrasounds produce have unknown long-term effects.

In addition, some studies have indicated that the operators of ultrasounds may not be giving their full attention to the device's safety gauges while operating. While it is not yet known if overly-frequent ultrasounds cause injury to fetus or to pregnant women, there is always the potential for medical malpractice in a setting where there are many uncertainties. Victims of medical malpractice may be entitled to compensation for damages, if medical equipment or its operators cause harm.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Pregnant women get more ultrasounds, without clear medical need," Kevin Helliker, July 17, 2015