By Darrel Crain, DC
"Look Daddy, the baby is smiling and waving at you on TV!" the pregnant woman said joyously to her husband.
The expectant couple has just forked over about three hundred clams to the clerk in the ultrasound boutique at the mall. Now they're watching their unborn baby on a large television screen as it flails tiny arms and legs while twisting its little head back and forth.
I call this phenomenon "recreational ultrasound." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls it "an unapproved use of a medical device." The Bureau of Radiological Health calls ultrasound "non-ionizing radiation."
Speaking of unregulated medical devices, are you old enough to remember those x-ray machines they used to have in shoe stores so you could see your foot inside the shoe? Kids loved playing with those contraptions while their moms were busy fitting shoes. Who knew the little box was emitting a steady stream of ionizing x rays into our bodies as we played? We took turns first putting in feet, then hands and finally elbows. Luckily, the opening at the bottom of the gizmo was too small for us to fit in a head.
Ultrasound was first developed as a military tool to detect enemy submarines in World War II, then became a powerful medical imaging tool. It has now evolved as a political tool, championed by anti-abortion groups for its ability to portray graphic images of very early human life. This understandably confounds efforts at effective federal regulation.
Consider the words of President George W. Bush, quoted by Luke Shockman in the Toledo Blade: "Today, through sonograms and other technology, we can clearly – see clearly that unborn children are members of the human family, as well. They reflect our image, and they were created in God's own image."
You don't suppose there's any chance that friends in high places have anything to do with the perpetuation of lax federal regulations over recreational ultrasound, do you?
Parents might suppose the reason their baby is seen twisting, flexing, and opening and closing its mouth during the ultrasound video is because the baby realizes, "It's show time!" Research, however, tells us that these active motions always begin as soon as the ultrasound is switched on only because the baby is desperately trying to get out of the way of the penetrating beam.
Babies exposed to ultrasound energy seem to "hear" intense sound, even though the frequency of ultrasound waves are outside the auditory range of humans. Researchers believe that the rapid vibration of the tiny, developing hearing structures caused by the ultrasound energy produces the effect. According to Mayo Foundation researcher Mostafa Fatemi, PhD., babies experience ultrasound as an intensely loud sound, "...equivalent to the level of sound produced by an approaching subway train."
Many years ago Bertolt Brecht observed, "Today every invention is received with a cry of triumph which soon turns into a cry of fear."
The American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) maintains that no biological effects on pregnant women have ever been confirmed. We shouldn't be too surprised, since no major studies on exposed pregnant moms have ever been done.
But what about the babies? Substantial evidence has accumulated suggesting that ultrasound exposure has the potential to harm a growing fetus.
"Studies on humans exposed to ultrasound have shown possible adverse effects, including premature ovulation, pre-term labor or miscarriage, low birth weight, poorer condition at birth, dyslexia, delayed speech development, and less right-handedness, a factor which in some circumstances can be a marker of damage to the developing brain," according to Sarah Buckley, M.D., Australian family practitioner and author.
"Nor should it be forgotten that in the monkey studies the ultrasound babies sat or lay around the bottom of the cage, whereas the little control monkeys were up to the usual monkey tricks. Long-term follow up of the monkeys has not been reported," said British author Beverley Lawrence Beech.
My favorite ultrasound story comes from a friend in New York City several years ago. After completing a routine ultrasound scan on his wife, the helpful obstetric nurse checked her clipboard and said, "Oh, I see you two don't want to know the gender, that's fine!" Halfway out the door she turned back and said, "Oh, are you going to want a circumcision?"
What immediate biologic effects occur when ultrasound radiation interacts with living human tissue? The focused beam of high energy causes two distinct effects in the body, both of which generate heat. The first is a local temperature rise of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the radiated tissue. This rise is presumed to be insignificant.
The second is cavitation, a process whereby small pockets of gas present in human tissue vibrate rapidly and then collapse. Temperatures in the gas are said to reach many thousands of degrees Celsius. This alters normal human chemistry in the vicinity of the generated heat. A number of abnormal, potentially toxic chemicals are produced in this way. The effects of this toxicity on the rapidly dividing cells of a growing baby are not known.
False positive findings in routine ultrasound scans scare the heck out of pregnant moms all too frequently. This causes anxiety, unnecessary and invasive interventions, increased cesarean births, and fewer babies carried full-term.
"Although we now have sufficient scientific data to be able to say that routine prenatal ultrasound scanning has no effectiveness and may very well carry risks, it would be naive to think that routine use will not continue," wrote Marsden Wagner.
The American Medical Association opposes routine ultrasound screening and has clearly listed those ultrasound applications considered unnecessary and to be avoided.
At the top of the bad things list is using ultrasound to confirm the baby's gender. This, of course, is the major reason modern couples are interested in ultrasound scans in the first place.
Other no-nos include using ultrasound to determine the age of the baby, determine the baby's size, confirm multiple pregnancies, and determine the position of the baby in the womb. I am told these precautions are pretty much universally ignored in the doctor offices of America.
As my wife commented, "Those are the exact reasons I was given when I was pregnant and told to go get an ultrasound!"
What happens if we don't tame our technology? "If the human race wants to go to Hell in a basket, technology can help it get there by jet," said Charles Allen.
The proliferation of unnecessary ultrasound exposure begins to sound like déjà vu all over again recalling the history of medical x rays. For fifty years routine use of x rays during pregnancy was enthusiastically endorsed by medical doctors. The x-ray habit persisted even as the cumulative and carcinogenic effects of x-ray exposure became well recognized.
We now have the experience of about forty years of diagnostic ultrasound in obstetric practice and still we wait for long-term safety studies. All this time we have repeatedly heard the unsupported claim that ultrasound is a benign technology, safe for routine use.
Practitioners have widely ditched the old-fashioned, reliable tools of skilled hands and stethoscopes to conduct prenatal exams in favor of ultrasound radiation. I'm just wondering, did we accidentally throw out the baby with the bathwater this time?
© Darrel Crain, 2006 All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Opinions? Rants? Call Darrel Crain at 619-445-0100
Dr. Darrel Crain
Natural Health Writer
President, CCA San Diego County District