Medical ultrasound

This article is about using ultrasound to image the human body. For imaging of animals in research, see Preclinical imaging. For therapeutic use of ultrasound, see High-intensity focused ultrasound.
"Sonography" redirects here. For the tactile alphabet called "sonography", see Night writing.
Medical ultrasonography

Sonographer doing pediatric echocardiography
ICD-10-PCS B?4
ICD-9-CM 88.7
MeSH D014463
OPS-301 code 3-03...3-05
Orthogonal planes of a 3 dimensional sonographic volume with transverse and coronal measurements for estimating fetal cranial volume.[1][2]

Medical ultrasound (also known as diagnostic sonography or ultrasonography) is a diagnostic imaging technique based on the application of ultrasound. It is used to see internal body structures such as tendons, muscles, joints, vessels and internal organs. Its aim is often to find a source of a disease or to exclude any pathology. The practice of examining pregnant women using ultrasound is called obstetric ultrasound, and is widely used.

Ultrasound is sound waves with frequencies which are higher than those audible to humans (>20,000 Hz). Ultrasonic images also known as sonograms are made by sending pulses of ultrasound into tissue using a probe. The sound echoes off the tissue; with different tissues reflecting varying degrees of sound. These echoes are recorded and displayed as an image to the operator.

Many different types of images can be formed using sonographic instruments. The most well-known type is a B-mode image, which displays the acoustic impedance of a two-dimensional cross-section of tissue. Other types of image can display blood flow, motion of tissue over time, the location of blood, the presence of specific molecules, the stiffness of tissue, or the anatomy of a three-dimensional region.

Compared to other prominent methods of medical imaging, ultrasound has several advantages. It provides images in real-time, it is portable and can be brought to the bedside, it is substantially lower in cost, and it does not use harmful ionizing radiation. Drawbacks of ultrasonography include various limits on its field of view including patient cooperation and physique, difficulty imaging structures behind bone and air, and its dependence on a skilled operator.

Diagnostic applications

Urinary bladder (black butterfly-like shape) and hyperplastic prostate (BPH) visualized by medical sonographic technique

Typical sonographic instruments operate in the frequency range of 1 to 18 megahertz, though frequencies up to 50–100 megahertz have been used experimentally in a technique known as biomicroscopy in special regions, such as the anterior chamber of the eye.[3] The choice of frequency is a trade-off between spatial resolution of the image and imaging depth: lower frequencies produce less resolution but image deeper into the body. Higher frequency sound waves have a smaller wavelength and thus are capable of reflecting or scattering from smaller structures. Higher frequency sound waves also have a larger attenuation coefficient and thus are more readily absorbed in tissue, limiting the depth of penetration of the sound wave into the body (for details, see Acoustic attenuation.)

Sonography (ultrasonography) is widely used in medicine. It is possible to perform both diagnosis and therapeutic procedures, using ultrasound to guide interventional procedures (for instance biopsies or drainage of fluid collections). Sonographers are medical professionals who perform scans which are then typically interpreted by themselves or the radiologists, physicians who specialize in the application and interpretation of a wide variety of medical imaging modalities, or by cardiologists in the case of cardiac ultrasonography (echocardiography). Sonographers typically use a hand-held probe (called a transducer) that is placed directly on and moved over the patient. Increasingly, clinicians (physicians and other healthcare professionals who provide direct patient care) are using ultrasound in their office and hospital practices.

Sonography is effective for imaging soft tissues of the body. Superficial structures such as muscles, tendons, testes, breast, thyroid and parathyroid glands, and the neonatal brain are imaged at a higher frequency (7–18 MHz), which provides better axial and lateral resolution. Deeper structures such as liver and kidney are imaged at a lower frequency 1–6 MHz with lower axial and lateral resolution but greater penetration.

Medical sonography is used in the study of many different systems:

System/Specialty Description See also
Anesthesiology Ultrasound is commonly used by anesthesiologists to guide injecting needles when placing local anaesthetic solutions near nerves. It is also used for gaining vascular access such as central venous cannulation and difficult arterial cannulation. Transcranial Doppler is frequently used by neuroa-nesthesiologists for obtaining information about flow-velocity in the basal cerebral vessels.
Angiology Duplex ultrasound (B Mode vessels imaging combined with Doppler flow measurement) is daily used in angiology to diagnose arterial and venous disease all over the body. see angiology
Cardiology Echocardiography is an essential tool in cardiology, to diagnose e.g. dilatation of parts of the heart and function of heart ventricles and valves see echocardiography
Emergency Medicine Point of care ultrasound has many applications in the Emergency Department, including the Focused Assessment with Sonography for Trauma (FAST) exam for assessing significant hemoperitoneum or pericardial tamponade after trauma. Ultrasound is routinely used in the Emergency Department to expedite the care of patients with right upper quadrant abdominal pain who may have gallstones or cholecystitis. see FAST exam, Emergency ultrasound.
Gastroenterology/Colorectal surgery In abdominal sonography, the solid organs of the abdomen such as the pancreas, aorta, inferior vena cava, liver, gall bladder, bile ducts, kidneys, and spleen are imaged. Sound waves are blocked by gas in the bowel and attenuated in different degree by fat, therefore there are limited diagnostic capabilities in this area. The appendix can sometimes be seen when inflamed (as in e.g.: appendicitis). Endoanal ultrasound is used particularly in the investigation of anorectal symptoms such as fecal incontinence or obstructed defecation. It images the immediate perianal anatomy and is able to detect occult defects such as tearing of the anal sphincter. See abdominal ultrasonography, Endoanal ultrasound
Gynecology see gynecologic ultrasonography
Head and Neck Surgery/Otolaryngology Most structures of the neck, including the thyroid and parathryoid glands, lymph nodes, and salivary glands, are well-visualized by high-frequency ultrasound with exceptional anatomic detail. Ultrasound is the preferred imaging modality for thyroid tumors and lesions, and ultrasonography is critical in the evaluation, preoperative planning, and postoperative surveillance of patients with thyroid cancer. Many other benign and malignant conditions in the head and neck can be evaluated and managed with the help of diagnostic ultrasound and ultrasound-guided procedures.
Neonatology for basic assessment of intracerebral structural abnormalities, bleeds, ventriculomegaly or hydrocephalus and anoxic insults (Periventricular leukomalacia). The ultrasound can be performed through the soft spots in the skull of a newborn infant (Fontanelle) until these completely close at about 1 year of age and form a virtually impenetrable acoustic barrier for the ultrasound. The most common site for cranial ultrasound is the anterior fontanelle. The smaller the fontanelle, the poorer the quality of the picture. Intracerebral: see Transcranial Doppler
Neurology for assessing blood flow and stenoses in the carotid arteries (Carotid ultrasonography) and the big intracerebral arteries see Carotid ultrasonography. Intracerebral: see Transcranial Doppler
Obstetrics Obstetrical sonography is commonly used during pregnancy to check on the development of the fetus. see obstetric ultrasonography
Ophthalmology Ultrasound images of the eyes, also known as ocular ultrasonography see A-scan ultrasonography, B-scan ultrasonography
Pulmonology Endobronchial Ultrasound (EBUS) probes are applied to standard flexible endoscopic probes and used by pulmonologists to allow for direct visualization of endobronchial lesions and lymph nodes prior to transbronchial needle aspiration. Among its many uses, EBUS aids in lung cancer staging by allowing for lymph node sampling without the need for major surgery.[4]
Urology to determine, for example, the amount of fluid retained in a patient's bladder. In a pelvic sonogram, organs of the pelvic region are imaged. This includes the uterus and ovaries or urinary bladder. Males are sometimes given a pelvic sonogram to check on the health of their bladder, the prostate, or their testicles (for example to distinguish epididymitis from testicular torsion). In young males, it is used to distinguish more benign testicular masses (varicocele or hydrocele) from testicular cancer, which is highly curable but which must be treated to preserve health and fertility. There are two methods of performing a pelvic sonography – externally or internally. The internal pelvic sonogram is performed either transvaginally (in a woman) or transrectally (in a man). Sonographic imaging of the pelvic floor can produce important diagnostic information regarding the precise relationship of abnormal structures with other pelvic organs and it represents a useful hint to treat patients with symptoms related to pelvic prolapse, double incontinence and obstructed defecation. It is used to diagnose and, at higher frequencies, to treat (break up) kidney stones or kidney crystals (nephrolithiasis).[5]
Musculoskeletal tendons, muscles, nerves, ligaments, soft tissue masses, and bone surfaces.[6] Ultrasound is an alternative to x-ray imaging in detecting fractures of the wrist, elbow and shoulder for patients up to 12 years (Fracture sonography).
Cardiovascular system To assess patency and possible obstruction of arteries Arterial sonography, diagnose deep vein thrombosis (Thrombosonography) and determine extent and severity of venous insufficiency (venosonography) Intravascular ultrasound

Other types of uses include:

A general-purpose ultrasound scanner may be used for most imaging purposes. Usually specialty applications may be served only by use of a specialty transducer. Most ultrasound procedures are done using a transducer on the surface of the body, but improved diagnostic confidence is often possible if a transducer can be placed inside the body. For this purpose, specialty transducers, including endovaginal, endorectal, and transesophageal transducers are commonly employed. At the extreme of this, very small transducers can be mounted on small diameter catheters and placed into blood vessels to image the walls and disease of those vessels.

From sound to image

The creation of an image from sound is done in three steps – producing a sound wave, receiving echoes, and interpreting those echoes.

Producing a sound wave

Medical ultrasound scanner

A sound wave is typically produced by a piezoelectric transducer encased in a plastic housing. Strong, short electrical pulses from the ultrasound machine drive the transducer at the desired frequency. The frequencies can be anywhere between 1 and 18 MHz. Older technology transducers focused their beam with physical lenses. Newer technology transducers use phased array techniques to enable the ultrasound machine to change the direction and depth of focus.

The sound is focused either by the shape of the transducer, a lens in front of the transducer, or a complex set of control pulses from the ultrasound scanner (Beamforming). This focusing produces an arc-shaped sound wave from the face of the transducer. The wave travels into the body and comes into focus at a desired depth.

Materials on the face of the transducer enable the sound to be transmitted efficiently into the body (often a rubbery coating, a form of impedance matching). In addition, a water-based gel is placed between the patient's skin and the probe.

The sound wave is partially reflected from the layers between different tissues or scattered from smaller structures. Specifically, sound is reflected anywhere where there are acoustic impedance changes in the body: e.g. blood cells in blood plasma, small structures in organs, etc. Some of the reflections return to the transducer.

Receiving the echoes

The return of the sound wave to the transducer results in the same process as sending the sound wave, except in reverse. The returned sound wave vibrates the transducer and the transducer turns the vibrations into electrical pulses that travel to the ultrasonic scanner where they are processed and transformed into a digital image.

Forming the image

To make an image, the ultrasound scanner must determine two things from each received echo:

  1. How long it took the echo to be received from when the sound was transmitted.
  2. How strong the echo was.

Once the ultrasonic scanner determines these two things, it can locate which pixel in the image to light up and to what intensity.

Transforming the received signal into a digital image may be explained by using a blank spreadsheet as an analogy. First picture a long, flat transducer at the top of the sheet. Send pulses down the 'columns' of the spreadsheet (A, B, C, etc.). Listen at each column for any return echoes. When an echo is heard, note how long it took for the echo to return. The longer the wait, the deeper the row (1,2,3, etc.). The strength of the echo determines the brightness setting for that cell (white for a strong echo, black for a weak echo, and varying shades of grey for everything in between.) When all the echoes are recorded on the sheet, we have a greyscale image.

Displaying the image

Images from the ultrasound scanner are transferred and displayed using the DICOM standard. Normally, very little post processing is applied to ultrasound images.

Sound in the body

Linear array transducer

Ultrasonography (sonography) uses a probe containing multiple acoustic transducers to send pulses of sound into a material. Whenever a sound wave encounters a material with a different density (acoustical impedance), part of the sound wave is reflected back to the probe and is detected as an echo. The time it takes for the echo to travel back to the probe is measured and used to calculate the depth of the tissue interface causing the echo. The greater the difference between acoustic impedances, the larger the echo is. If the pulse hits gases or solids, the density difference is so great that most of the acoustic energy is reflected and it becomes impossible to see deeper.

The frequencies used for medical imaging are generally in the range of 1 to 18 MHz. Higher frequencies have a correspondingly smaller wavelength, and can be used to make sonograms with smaller details. However, the attenuation of the sound wave is increased at higher frequencies, so in order to have better penetration of deeper tissues, a lower frequency (3–5 MHz) is used.

Seeing deep into the body with sonography is very difficult. Some acoustic energy is lost every time an echo is formed, but most of it (approximately ) is lost from acoustic absorption. (See also Acoustic attenuation for further details on modeling of acoustic attenuation and absorption.)

The speed of sound varies as it travels through different materials, and is dependent on the acoustical impedance of the material. However, the sonographic instrument assumes that the acoustic velocity is constant at 1540 m/s. An effect of this assumption is that in a real body with non-uniform tissues, the beam becomes somewhat de-focused and image resolution is reduced.

To generate a 2D-image, the ultrasonic beam is swept. A transducer may be swept mechanically by rotating or swinging. Or a 1D phased array transducer may be used to sweep the beam electronically. The received data is processed and used to construct the image. The image is then a 2D representation of the slice into the body.

3D images can be generated by acquiring a series of adjacent 2D images. Commonly a specialised probe that mechanically scans a conventional 2D-image transducer is used. However, since the mechanical scanning is slow, it is difficult to make 3D images of moving tissues. Recently, 2D phased array transducers that can sweep the beam in 3D have been developed. These can image faster and can even be used to make live 3D images of a beating heart.

Doppler ultrasonography is used to study blood flow and muscle motion. The different detected speeds are represented in color for ease of interpretation, for example leaky heart valves: the leak shows up as a flash of unique color. Colors may alternatively be used to represent the amplitudes of the received echoes.

Modes of sonography

Several modes of ultrasound are used in medical imaging.[13][14] These are:


An additional expansion or additional technique of ultrasound is biplanar ultrasound, in which the probe has two 2D planes that are perpendicular to each other, providing more efficient localization and detection.[15] Furthermore, an omniplane probe is one that can rotate 180° to obtain multiple images.[15] In 3D ultrasound, many 2D planes are digitally added together to create a 3-dimensional image of the object.

Doppler ultrasonography

Spectral Doppler scan of the common carotid artery
Colour Doppler scan of the common carotid artery

Sonography can be enhanced with Doppler measurements, which employ the Doppler effect to assess whether structures (usually blood)[16] are moving towards or away from the probe, and its relative velocity. By calculating the frequency shift of a particular sample volume, for example flow in an artery or a jet of blood flow over a heart valve, its speed and direction can be determined and visualised. This is particularly useful in cardiovascular studies (sonography of the vascular system and heart) and essential in many areas such as determining reverse blood flow in the liver vasculature in portal hypertension. The Doppler information is displayed graphically using spectral Doppler, or as an image using color Doppler (directional Doppler) or power Doppler (non directional Doppler). This Doppler shift falls in the audible range and is often presented audibly using stereo speakers: this produces a very distinctive, although synthetic, pulsating sound.

All modern ultrasound scanners use pulsed Doppler to measure velocity. Pulsed wave machines transmit and receive series of pulses. The frequency shift of each pulse is ignored, however the relative phase changes of the pulses are used to obtain the frequency shift (since frequency is the rate of change of phase). The major advantages of pulsed Doppler over continuous wave is that distance information is obtained (the time between the transmitted and received pulses can be converted into a distance with knowledge of the speed of sound) and gain correction is applied. The disadvantage of pulsed Doppler is that the measurements can suffer from aliasing. The terminology "Doppler ultrasound" or "Doppler sonography", has been accepted to apply to both pulsed and continuous Doppler systems despite the different mechanisms by which the velocity is measured.

It should be noted here that there are no standards for the display of color Doppler. Some laboratories show arteries as red and veins as blue, as medical illustrators usually show them, even though some vessels may have portions flowing towards and portions flowing away from the transducer. This results in the illogical appearance of a vessel being partly a vein and partly an artery. Other laboratories use red to indicate flow toward the transducer and blue away from the transducer. Still other laboratories prefer to display the sonographic Doppler color map more in accord with the prior published physics with the red shift representing longer waves of echoes (scattered) from blood flowing away from the transducer; and with blue representing the shorter waves of echoes reflecting from blood flowing toward the transducer. Because of this confusion and lack of standards in the various laboratories, the sonographer must understand the underlying acoustic physics of color Doppler and the physiology of normal and abnormal blood flow in the human body (see Red shift[17][18][19]).

Although Angiography and Venography which both use X-ray and contrast injection material are more accurate than Doppler Sonography, Doppler Sonography may be chosen because it is faster, less expensive, and non-invasive.[20]

Contrast ultrasonography (ultrasound contrast imaging)

A contrast medium for medical ultrasonography is a formulation of encapsulated gaseous microbubbles[21] to increase echogenicity of blood, discovered by Dr Raymond Gramiak in 1968[22] and named contrast-enhanced ultrasound. This contrast medical imaging modality is clinically used throughout the world,[23] in particular for echocardiography in the United States and for ultrasound radiology in Europe and Asia.

Microbubbles-based contrast media is administrated intravenously in patient blood stream during the medical ultrasonography examination. The microbubbles being too large in diameter, they stay confined in blood vessels and cannot extravasate towards the interstitial fluid. An ultrasound contrast media is therefore purely intravascular, making it an ideal agent to image organ microvascularization for diagnostic purposes. A typical clinical use of contrast ultrasonography is detection of a hypervascular metastatic tumor, which exhibits a contrast uptake (kinetics of microbubbles concentration in blood circulation) faster than healthy biological tissue surrounding the tumor.[24] Other clinical applications using contrast exist, such as in echocardiography to improve delineation of left ventricle for visually checking contractibility of heart after a myocardial infarction. Finally, applications in quantitative perfusion[25] (relative measurement of blood flow [26]) emerge for identifying early patient response to an anti-cancerous drug treatment (methodology and clinical study by Dr Nathalie Lassau in 2011[27]), enabling to determine the best oncological therapeutic options.[28]

Parametric imaging of vascular signatures (diagram)

In oncological practice of medical contrast ultrasonography, clinicians use the method of parametric imaging of vascular signatures[29] invented by Dr Nicolas Rognin in 2010.[30] This method is conceived as a cancer aided diagnostic tool, facilitating characterization of a suspicious tumor (malignant versus benign) in an organ. This method is based on medical computational science [31][32] to analyze a time sequence of ultrasound contrast images, a digital video recorded in real-time during patient examination. Two consecutive signal processing steps are applied to each pixel of the tumor:

  1. calculation of a vascular signature (contrast uptake difference with respect to healthy tissue surrounding the tumor);
  2. automatic classification of the vascular signature into a unique parameter, this last coded in one of the four following colors:
    • green for continuous hyper-enhancement (contrast uptake higher than healthy tissue one),
    • blue for continuous hypo-enhancement (contrast uptake lower than healthy tissue one),
    • red for fast hyper-enhancement (contrast uptake before healthy tissue one) or
    • yellow for fast hypo-enhancement (contrast uptake after healthy tissue one).

Once signal processing in each pixel completed, a color spatial map of the parameter is displayed on a computer monitor, summarizing all vascular information of the tumor in a single image called parametric image (see last figure of press article [33] as clinical examples). This parametric image is interpreted by clinicians based on predominant colorization of the tumor: red indicates a suspicion of malignancy (risk of cancer), green or yellow – a high probability of benignity. In the first case (suspicion of malignant tumor), the clinician typically prescribes a biopsy to confirm the diagnostic or a CT scan examination as a second opinion. In the second case (quasi-certain of benign tumor), only a follow-up is needed with a contrast ultrasonography examination a few months later. The main clinical benefits are to avoid a systematic biopsy (risky invasive procedure) of benign tumors or a CT scan examination exposing the patient to X-ray radiation. The parametric imaging of vascular signatures method proved to be effective in humans for characterization of tumors in the liver.[34] In a cancer screening context, this method might be potentially applicable to other organs such as breast[35] or prostate.

Molecular ultrasonography (ultrasound molecular imaging)

The future of contrast ultrasonography is in molecular imaging with potential clinical applications expected in cancer screening to detect malignant tumors at their earliest stage of appearance. Molecular ultrasonography (or ultrasound molecular imaging) uses targeted microbubbles originally designed by Dr Alexander Klibanov in 1997;[36][37] such targeted microbubbles specifically bind or adhere to tumoral microvessels by targeting biomolecular cancer expression (overexpression of certain biomolecules occurs during neo-angiogenesis[38][39] or inflammation[40] processes in malignant tumors). As a result, a few minutes after their injection in blood circulation, the targeted microbubbles accumulate in the malignant tumor; facilitating its localization in a unique ultrasound contrast image. In 2013, the very first exploratory clinical trial in humans for prostate cancer was completed at Amsterdam in the Netherlands by Dr Hessel Wijkstra.[41]

In molecular ultrasonography, the technique of acoustic radiation force (also used for shear wave elastography) is applied in order to literally push the targeted microbubbles towards microvessels wall; firstly demonstrated by Dr Paul Dayton in 1999.[42] This allows to maximize binding to the malignant tumor; the targeted microbubbles being in more direct contact with cancerous biomolecules expressed at the inner surface of tumoral microvessels. At the stage of scientific preclinical research, the technique of acoustic radiation force was implemented as a prototype in clinical ultrasound systems and validated in vivo in 2D[43] and 3D[44][45] imaging modes.

Elastography (ultrasound elasticity imaging)

Main article: Elastography

Ultrasound is also used for elastography, which is a relatively new imaging modality that maps the elastic properties of soft tissue.[46][47] This modality emerged in the last two decades. Elastography is useful in medical diagnoses as it can discern healthy from unhealthy tissue for specific organs/growths. For example, cancerous tumors will often be harder than the surrounding tissue, and diseased livers are stiffer than healthy ones.[46][47][48][49]

There are many ultrasound elastography techniques.[47] The most prominent are: Quasistatic Elastography/Strain Imaging, Shear Wave Elasticity Imaging (SWEI), Supersonic Shear Imaging (SSI), Acoustic Radiation Force Impulse imaging (ARFI), and Transient Elastography. The steadily growing clinical use of ultrasound elastography is a result of the implementation of technology in clinical ultrasound machines. Currently, an increase of activities in the field of elastography is observed demonstrating successful application of the technology in various areas of medical diagnostics and treatment monitoring.

Compression ultrasonography

Compression ultrasonography is a simplified technique used for quick deep vein thrombosis diagnosis. The examination is limited to common femoral vein and popliteal vein only, instead to spend time performing the full examination, lower limbs venous ultrasonography. It is performed using only one test: vein compression.[50]

Compression ultrasonography has both high sensitivity and specificity for detecting proximal deep vein thrombosis only in symptomatic patients. Results are not reliable when the patient is symptomless and must be checked, for example in high risk postoperative patients mainly in orthopedic patients.[51][52]


As with all imaging modalities, ultrasonography has its list of positive and negative attributes.



Double aort artifact in sonography due to difference in velocity of sound waves in muscle and fat.

Risks and side-effects

Ultrasonography is generally considered a safe imaging modality.[53]

Diagnostic ultrasound studies of the fetus are generally considered to be safe during pregnancy. This diagnostic procedure should be performed only when there is a valid medical indication, and the lowest possible ultrasonic exposure setting should be used to gain the necessary diagnostic information under the "as low as reasonably practicable" or ALARP principle.

World Health Organizations technical report series 875 (1998).[54] supports that ultrasound is harmless: "Diagnostic ultrasound is recognized as a safe, effective, and highly flexible imaging modality capable of providing clinically relevant information about most parts of the body in a rapid and cost-effective fashion". Although there is no evidence ultrasound could be harmful for the fetus, US Food and Drug Administration views promotion, selling, or leasing of ultrasound equipment for making "keepsake fetal videos" to be an unapproved use of a medical device.

Medical ultrasonography should not be performed without a medical indication to perform it. To do otherwise would be to perform unnecessary health care to patients, which bring unwarranted costs and may lead to other testing. Overuse of ultrasonography is reported in the United States, especially as routine screening for deep vein thrombosis after orthopedic surgeries in patients who are not at heightened risk for having that condition.[55]

Studies on the safety of ultrasound

Obstetric ultrasound

Obstetric ultrasound can be used to identify many conditions that would be harmful to the mother and the baby. Many health care professionals consider the risk of leaving these conditions undiagnosed to be much greater than the very small risk, if any, associated with undergoing an ultrasound scan.

Sonography is used routinely in obstetric appointments during pregnancy, but the FDA discourages its use for non-medical purposes such as fetal keepsake videos and photos, even though it is the same technology used in hospitals.[63]

Obstetric ultrasound is primarily used to:

Its results are occasionally incorrect, producing a false positive (the Cochrane Collaboration is a relevant effort to improve the reliability of health care trials). False detection may result in patients being warned of birth defects when no such defect exists. Sex determination is only accurate after 12 weeks gestation. When balancing risk and reward, there are recommendations to avoid the use of routine ultrasound for low risk pregnancies. In many countries ultrasound is used routinely in the management of all pregnancies.

According to the European Committee of Medical Ultrasound Safety (ECMUS)[64]

Ultrasonic examinations should only be performed by competent personnel who are trained and updated in safety matters. Ultrasound produces heating, pressure changes and mechanical disturbances in tissue. Diagnostic levels of ultrasound can produce temperature rises that are hazardous to sensitive organs and the embryo/fetus. Biological effects of non-thermal origin have been reported in animals but, to date, no such effects have been demonstrated in humans, except when a microbubble contrast agent is present.

Nonetheless, care should be taken to use low power settings and avoid pulsed wave scanning of the fetal brain unless specifically indicated in high risk pregnancies.

Ultrasound scanners have different Doppler-techniques to visualize arteries and veins. The most common is colour doppler or power doppler, but also other techniques like b-flow are used to show bloodflow in an organ. By using pulsed wave doppler or continuous wave doppler bloodflow velocities can be calculated.

Figures released for the period 2005–2006 by the UK Government (Department of Health) show that non-obstetric ultrasound examinations constituted more than 65% of the total number of ultrasound scans conducted.

Society and Culture

Recent studies have stressed the importance of framing “reproductive health matters cross-culturally”, particularly when understanding the “new phenomenon” of “the proliferation of ultrasound imaging” in developing countries.[65] In 2004, Tine Gammeltoft interviewed 400 women in Hanoi’s Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital; each “had an average of 6.6 scans during her pregnancy”, much higher than five years ago when “a pregnant woman might or might not have had a single scan during her pregnancy” in Vietnam.[65] Gammeltoft explains that “many Asian countries” see “the foetus as an ambiguous being” unlike in Western medicine where it is common to think of the foetus as “materially stable”.[65] Therefore, although women, particularly in Asian countries, “express intense uncertainties regarding the safety and credibility of this technology”, it is overused for its “immediate reassurance”.[65]


Diagnostic and therapeutic ultrasound equipment is regulated in the USA by the Food and Drug Administration, and worldwide by other national regulatory agencies. The FDA limits acoustic output using several metrics; generally, other agencies accept the FDA-established guidelines.

Currently, New Mexico, Oregon, and North Dakota are the only US states that regulate diagnostic medical sonographers.[66] Certification examinations for sonographers are available in the US from three organizations: the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, Cardiovascular Credentialing International and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists.

The primary regulated metrics are Mechanical Index (MI), a metric associated with the cavitation bio-effect, and Thermal Index (TI) a metric associated with the tissue heating bio-effect. The FDA requires that the machine not exceed established limits, which are reasonably conservative so as to maintain diagnostic ultrasound as a safe imaging modality. This requires self-regulation on the part of the manufacturer in terms of the machine's calibration.[67]

Ultrasound-based pre-natal care and sex screening technologies were launched in India in the 1980s. With concerns about its misuse for sex-selective abortion, the Government of India passed the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PNDT) in 1994 to regulate legal and illegal uses of ultrasound equipment.[68] The law was further amended into the Pre-Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) (PCPNDT) Act in 2004 to deter and punish prenatal sex screening and sex selective abortion.[69] It is currently illegal and a punishable crime in India to determine or disclose the sex of a fetus using ultrasound equipment.[70]


After the French physicist Pierre Curie’s discovery of piezoelectricity in 1880, ultrasonic waves could be deliberately generated for industry. Thereafter, in 1940, the American acoustical physicist Floyd Firestone devised the first ultrasonic echo imaging device, the Supersonic Reflectoscope, to detect internal flaws in metal castings. In 1941, the Austrian neurologist Karl Theo Dussik was in collaboration with his brother, Friedreich, a physicist, likely, the first person to ultrasonically echo image the human body, outlining thereby the ventricles of a human brain.[71][72] Ultrasonic energy was first applied to the human body for medical purposes by Dr George Ludwig at the Naval Medical Research Institute, Bethesda, Maryland in the late 1940s.[73][74] English-born physicist John Wild (1914–2009) first used ultrasound to assess the thickness of bowel tissue as early as 1949; he has been described as the "father of medical ultrasound".[75] Subsequent advances in the field took place concurrently in several countries.


In his book "L'investigation vasculaire par ultrasonographie Doppler" (Ed Masson, 1977) [16] Dr Claude Franceschi laid down the Doppler Ultrasound fundamentals of the hemodynamics semiotics, which are still in use in current Doppler arterial and venous Duplex Ultrasound investigations.


Parallel developments in Glasgow, Scotland by Professor Ian Donald and colleagues at the Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital (GRMH) led to the first diagnostic applications of the technique. Donald was an obstetrician with a self-confessed "childish interest in machines, electronic and otherwise", who, having treated the wife of one of the company's directors, was invited to visit the Research Department of boilermakers Babcock & Wilcox at Renfrew, where he used their industrial ultrasound equipment to conduct experiments on various morbid anatomical specimens and assess their ultrasonic characteristics. Together with the medical physicist Tom Brown and fellow obstetrician Dr John MacVicar, Donald refined the equipment to enable differentiation of pathology in live volunteer patients. These findings were reported in The Lancet on 7 June 1958[76] as "Investigation of Abdominal Masses by Pulsed Ultrasound" – possibly one of the most important papers ever published in the field of diagnostic medical imaging.

At GRMH, Professor Donald and Dr James Willocks then refined their techniques to obstetric applications including fetal head measurement to assess the size and growth of the fetus. With the opening of the new Queen Mother's Hospital in Yorkhill in 1964, it became possible to improve these methods even further. Dr Stuart Campbell's pioneering work on fetal cephalometry led to it acquiring long-term status as the definitive method of study of foetal growth. As the technical quality of the scans was further developed, it soon became possible to study pregnancy from start to finish and diagnose its many complications such as multiple pregnancy, fetal abnormality and placenta praevia. Diagnostic ultrasound has since been imported into practically every other area of medicine.


Medical ultrasonography was used in 1953 at Lund University by cardiologist Inge Edler and Gustav Ludwig Hertz's son Carl Hellmuth Hertz, who was then a graduate student at the University's department of nuclear physics.

Edler had asked Hertz if it was possible to use radar to look into the body, but Hertz said this was impossible. However, he said, it might be possible to use ultrasonography. Hertz was familiar with using ultrasonic reflectoscopes of the American acoustical physicist Floyd Firestone's invention for nondestructive materials testing, and together Edler and Hertz developed the idea of using this method in medicine.

The first successful measurement of heart activity was made on October 29, 1953 using a device borrowed from the ship construction company Kockums in Malmö. On December 16 the same year, the method was used to generate an echo-encephalogram (ultrasonic probe of the brain). Edler and Hertz published their findings in 1954.[77]

United States

In 1962, after about two years of work, Joseph Holmes, William Wright, and Ralph Meyerdirk developed the first compound contact B-mode scanner. Their work had been supported by U.S. Public Health Services and the University of Colorado. Wright and Meyerdirk left the University to form Physionic Engineering Inc., which launched the first commercial hand-held articulated arm compound contact B-mode scanner in 1963. This was the start of the most popular design in the history of ultrasound scanners.[78]

In the late 1960s Dr Gene Strandness and the bio-engineering group at the University of Washington conducted research on Doppler ultrasound as a diagnostic tool for vascular disease. Eventually, they developed technologies to use duplex imaging, or Doppler in conjunction with B-mode scanning, to view vascular structures in real-time, while also providing hemodynamic information.[79]

The first demonstration of color Doppler was by Geoff Stevenson, who was involved in the early developments and medical use of Doppler shifted ultrasonic energy.[80]

See also


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