Obstetrical ultrasound: can the fetus feel about it?

Obstetrical ultrasound is a must when you are pregrant. However, you may wonder, can the fetus feel about it when we using ultrasound scan? The answer is "Yes". So what do the fetus feel?

"Fetuses can hear ultrasound and the sound is as loud as a subway train entering a station." This statement originates in a single report in a non-peer reviewed journal, despite its name 1, of a presentation at a scientific meeting by researchers who reported measuring the sound intensity in the uterus of pregnant women and being able to demonstrate the above. This was later published in a peer-review journal 2 probably not very widely read by clinicians or the general public. From time to time, the popular press or various pregnancy-related websites repeat the assertion or a worried pregnant patient inquires about the truthfulness of this statement. A second, oft-quoted concern is that ultrasound leads to heating of the amniotic fluid. These two assertions may be very concerning to expectant parents and merit scientific scrutiny. In this editorial, we shall examine the known facts about the physical properties of ultrasound as they relate to these two issues.

Diagnostic ultrasound employs a pulsed sound wave with positive and negative pressures and the Mayo team, quoted in the New Scientist, predicted that the pulsing would translate into a "tapping" effect 1. According to their report, they placed a tiny hydrophone inside a woman's uterus while she was undergoing an ultrasound examination. They stated that they picked up a hum at around the frequency of the pulsing generated when the ultrasound is switched on and off. The sound was similar to the highest notes on a piano. They also indicated that when the ultrasound probe was pointed right at the hydrophone, it registered a level of 100 decibels, as loud as a subway train coming into a station. ultrasound scan Sound levels in decibels are defined for audible frequencies with the reference level being the threshold for hearing at a given frequency. Although the operating frequencies used in sonography are inaudible, it is possible for the pulsing rate (pulse repetition frequency, PRF) to be heard, thus falling in the audible range.

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A previous report had hinted at similar phenomena 3.Ultrasound is a pressure wave with a frequency beyond (ultra) that detectable in the human auditory system. The human ear can discern sound at roughly 20 - 20 000 cycles (hertz) per second. The frequencies of diagnostic ultrasound are roughly 1 - 10 megahertz (MHz) or 1 000 000 to 10 000 000 cycles per second. It is a form of energy and, as such, may have effects in tissues it traverses. Any consequences occurring in living tissues secondary to an external influence are called biological effects or bioeffects. This term does not imply damage or harm. The two major mechanisms for bioeffects are thermal and non-thermal. Thermal effects are secondary to ultrasound energy being converted into heat in the tissue (indirect effect of ultrasound) and non-thermal effects are secondary to the alternating positive and negative pressures generated by the wave (direct effect).

The definition of moderately loud sound is 60 - 70 dB (2 × 10-3-2 × 10-2 Pa), defined as high urban ambient sound, normal conversation at 1 m, or living room music 4. In comparison, quiet conversation is 40 dB, a railway diesel engine passing at 45 mph at 100 feet is 80 - 85 dB and a rock band is 110 dB 4. There have been a few publications describing harm to fetuses exposed to elevated levels of ambient noise, particularly industrial noise 567, specifically in the aircraft and textile industries, but while there have been reports of impaired hearing in infants who were exposed to ultrasound in the womb, several rigorous studies have disproved that notion 891011. Furthermore, a study of fetuses exposed in utero to vibroacoustic stimulation 12 and a recent study of fetuses exposed to noise generated during an MR exam of the pregnant women 13 showed no ill effect on the auditory system. There have been some reports of being able to hear a "hum" during transcranial ultrasound.

This may be the pulse-repetition frequency (PRF), but, if so, it would be described as a higher pitch, and probably not a "hum". To our knowledge, this phenomenon has not been investigated. Although the report mentioned above suggested that diagnostic ultrasound is detectable at measurable levels in the uterus, there is no independently confirmed, peer-reviewed, published evidence that the fetus actually hears the PRF, responds to it or is harmed by it."The fetus cannot regulate its own body temperature, so amniotic fluid can reach very high temperatures over long periods" 14. Does this statement reflect a real risk? What does it mean if this statement is scientifically true? The fear is, of course, that this will raise the temperature of the fetus. Thermally induced teratogenesis has been demonstrated in many animal studies, as well as several controlled human studies 1516. A temperature increase of 1.5 °C above the normal value has been suggested as a universal threshold 17. It is important to note that diagnostic ultrasound was not the source of the temperature elevation in any of these studies.

Some believe that there are temperature thresholds for hyperthermia-induced birth defects (hence the ALARA [as low as reasonably achievable] principle), but there is some evidence that any positive temperature differential for any period of time has some effect, in other words there may be no thermal threshold for hyperthermia-induced birth defects 18. In experimental animals the most common defects are microcephaly with associated functional and behavioral problems 17, microphthalmia and cataracts. There are reports on the effects of hyperthermia and measurements of in vivo temperature induced by pulsed ultrasound but not in humans 192021. Temperature increases of 1 °C are easily reached in routine scanning 22. Elevation of up to 1.5 °C can be obtained in the first trimester and up to 4 °C in the second and third trimesters, particularly with the use of pulsed Doppler 23. When the ultrasound wave travels through tissue, its intensity diminishes with distance (attenuation). In completely homogeneous materials, the signal amplitude is reduced only by beam divergence and absorption (conversion of sound to heat). However, biologic tissues are non-homogeneous and further weakening occurs due to scattering.

The issue of temperature increase in the amniotic fluid is based on the fact that the energy of the ultrasound waves is partially converted to heat in the tissue traversed by the waves. Tissues with a high absorption coefficient (such as bone) will produce a high conversion rate while the conversion will be lower in tissues with low absorption. Fluids have very low absorption characteristics and, therefore, the risk of temperature elevation in the amniotic fluid is minimal. The only available study on the topic did not demonstrate any increase in temperature in the amniotic fluid when performing diagnostic ultrasound, both in grayscale anatomic imaging (sonography) and Doppler ultrasound 24. ConclusionWhile ultrasound is a sound wave which can produce mechanical effects and temperature elevation in tissues that it traverses, the risk to human fetuses when using diagnostic ultrasound appears to be minimal if certain rules are followed, such as performing a scan when medically indicated, and observing the ALARA principle (using the lowest output power consistent with acquiring the necessary diagnostic information and keeping the exposure time as low as possible for accurate diagnosis).

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