Why and when is Ultrasound used in Pregnancy?
Ultrasound scan is currently considered to be a safe, non-invasive, accurate and cost-effective investigation in the fetus. It has progressively become an indispensible obstetric tool and plays an important role in the care of every pregnant woman.
The main use of ultrasonography are in the following areas:
1. Diagnosis and confirmation of early pregnancy.
The gestational sac can be visualized as early as four and a half weeks of gestation and the yolk sac at about five weeks. The embryo can be observed and measured by about five and a half weeks. Ultrasound can also very importantly confirm the site of the pregnancy is within the cavity of the uterus.
2. Vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy.
The viability of the fetus can be documented in the presence of vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy. A visible heartbeat could be seen and detectable by pulsed doppler ultrasound by about 6 weeks and is usually clearly depictable by 7 weeks. If this is observed, the probability of a continued pregnancy is better than 95 percent. Missed abortions and blighted ovum will usually give typical pictures of a deformed gestational sac and absence of fetal poles or heart beat.
Fetal heart rate tends to vary with gestational age in the very early parts of pregnancy. Normal heart rate at 6 weeks is around 90-110 beats per minute (bpm) and at 9 weeks is 140-170 bpm. At 5-8 weeks a bradycardia (less than 90 bpm) is associated with a high risk of miscarriage.
Many women do not ovulate at around day 14, so findings after a single scan should always be interpreted with caution. The diagnosis of missed abortion is usually made by serial ultrasound scans demonstrating lack of gestational development. For example, if ultrasound scan demonstrates a 7mm embryo but cannot demonstrable a clearcut heartbeat, a missed abortion may be diagnosed. In such cases, it is reasonable to repeat the ultrasound scan in 7-10 days to avoid any error.
The timing of a positive pregnancy test may also be helpful in this regard to assess the possible dates of conception. A positive pregnancy test 3 weeks previously for example, would indicate a gestational age of at least 7 weeks. Such information would be useful against the interpretation of the scans. Please read the FAQs for more comments.
In the presence of first trimester bleeding, ultrasonography is also indispensible in the early diagnosis of ectopic pregnancies and molar pregnancies.
3. Determination of gestational age and assessment of fetal size.
Fetal body measurements reflect the gestational age of the fetus. This is particularly true in early gestation. In patients with uncertain last menstrual periods, such measurements must be made as early as possible in pregnancy to arrive at a correct dating for the patient. See FAQ. In the latter part of pregnancy measuring body parameters will allow assessment of the size and growth of the fetus and will greatly assist in the diagnosis and management of intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR).
The following measurements are usually made:
a) The Crown-rump length (CRL)
This measurement can be made between 7 to 13 weeks and gives very accurate estimation of the gestational age. Dating with the CRL can be within 3-4 days of the last menstrual period. (Table) An important point to note is that when the due date has been set by an accurately measured CRL, it should not be changed by a subsequent scan. For example, if another scan done 6 or 8 weeks later says that one should have a new due date which is further away, one should not normally change the date but should rather interpret the finding as that the baby is not growing at the expected rate.
b) The Biparietal diameter (BPD)
The diameter between the 2 sides of the head. This is measured after 13 weeks. It increases from about 2.4 cm at 13 weeks to about 9.5 cm at term. Different babies of the same weight can have different head size, therefore dating in the later part of pregnancy is generally considered unreliable. (Chart and further comments) Dating using the BPD should be done as early as is feasible.
c) The Femur length (FL)
Measures the longest bone in the body and reflects the longitudinal growth of the fetus. Its usefulness is similar to the BPD. It increases from about 1.5 cm at 14 weeks to about 7.8 cm at term. (Chart and further comments) Similar to the BPD, dating using the FL should be done as early as is feasible.
d) The Abdominal circumference (AC)
The single most important measurement to make in late pregnancy. It reflects more of fetal size and weight rather than age. Serial measurements are useful in monitoring growth of the fetus. (Chart and further comments) AC measurements should not be used for dating a fetus.
Other important measurements are discussed here.
The weight of the fetus at any gestation can also be estimated with great accuracy using polynomial equations containing the BPD, FL, and AC. computer softwares and lookup charts are readily available. For example, a BPD of 9.0 cm and an AC of 30.0 cm will give a weight estimate of 2.85 kg. (comments)
4. Diagnosis of fetal malformation.
Many structural abnormalities in the fetus can be reliably diagnosed by an ultrasound scan, and these can usually be made before 20 weeks. Common examples include hydrocephalus, anencephaly, myelomeningocoele, achondroplasia and other dwarfism, spina bifida, exomphalos, Gastroschisis, duodenal atresia and fetal hydrops. With more recent equipment, conditions such as cleft lips/ palate and congenital cardiac abnormalities are more readily diagnosed and at an earlier gestational age. (Also see the FAQ and Anomalies pages).
First trimester ultrasonic 'soft' markers for chromosomal abnormalities such as the absence of fetal nasal bone, an increased fetal nuchal translucency (the area at the back of the neck) are now in common use to enable detection of Down syndrome fetuses.
Read also: Soft Markers - A Guide for Professionals and Ultrasonographic "soft markers" of fetal chromosomal defects.
Ultrasound can also assist in other diagnostic procedures in prenatal diagnosis such as amniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling, cordocentesis (percutaneous umbilical blood sampling) and in fetal therapy.
5. Placental localization.
Ultrasonography has become indispensible in the localization of the site of the placenta and determining its lower edges, thus making a diagnosis or an exclusion of placenta previa. Other placental abnormalities in conditions such as diabetes, fetal hydrops, Rh isoimmunization and severe intrauterine growth retardation can also be assessed.
6. Multiple pregnancies.
In this situation, ultrasonography is invaluable in determining the number of fetuses, the chorionicity, fetal presentations, evidence of growth retardation and fetal anomaly, the presence of placenta previa, and any suggestion of twin-to-twin transfusion.
7. Hydramnios and Oligohydramnios.
Excessive or decreased amount of liquor (amniotic fluid) can be clearly depicted by ultrasound. Both of these conditions can have adverse effects on the fetus. In both these situations, careful ultrasound examination should be made to exclude intraulterine growth retardation and congenital malformation in the fetus such as intestinal atresia, hydrops fetalis or renal dysplasia. See also FAQ and comments.
8. Other areas.
Ultrasonography is of great value in other obstetric conditions such as:
a) confirmation of intrauterine death.
b) confirmation of fetal presentation in uncertain cases.
c) evaluating fetal movements, tone and breathing in the Biophysical Profile.
d) diagnosis of uterine and pelvic abnormalities during pregnancy e.g. fibromyomata and ovarian cyst.
What about Safety?
It has been over 40 years since ultrasound was first used on pregnant women. Unlike X-rays, ionizing irradiation is not present and embryotoxic effects associated with such irradiation should not be relevant. The use of high intensity ultrasound is associated with the effects of "cavitation" and "heating" which can be present with prolonged insonation in laboratory situations.
Although certain harmful effects in cells are observed in a laboratory setting, abnormalities in embryos and offsprings of animals and humans have not been unequivocally demonstrated in the large amount of studies that have so far appeared in the medical literature purporting to the use of diagnostic ultrasound in the clinical setting. Apparent ill-effects such as low birthweight, speech and hearing problems, brain damage and non-right-handedness reported in small studies have not been confirmed or substantiated in larger studies from Europe. The complexity of some of the studies have made the observations difficult to interpret. Every now and then ill effects of ultrasound on the fetus appears as a news item in papers and magazines. Continuous vigilance is necessary particularly in areas of concern such as the use of pulsed Doppler in the first trimester.
The greatest risks arising from the use of ultrasound are the possible over- and under- diagnosis brought about by inadequately trained staff, often working in relative isolation and using poor equipment.