A sonogram is a medical procedure that uses ultrasound waves to create a picture of something that is happening within a person’s body. This is a very common procedure in pregnancy, and is what produces the black-and-white fetal pictures that so many new parents proudly display to friends and family. Medical professionals use the technology for a range of conditions, however, including cancer biopsies and organ evaluations. The pictures generated from sonograms give experts a relatively clean look into the body to understand what is happening without having to perform surgery or other invasive procedures.
How it Works
Sonogram machines emit sound waves, often known as ultrasound waves, that bounce off of organs, bones, and muscles. The machines are able to calculate the distance between waves in order to generate a very accurate picture, which is displayed on a specialized computer screen.
In most cases, the waves are both sent and received from a wand-like instrument known as a transducer. A trained technician will usually gently touch the wand to the skin above the area of interest. Jelly or lubricant is often applied first, both to help the wand glide and to amplify the sound waves to generate a clearer, more accurate picture. Most sonogram sessions result in pictures from many different angles, which technicians and medical professionals look at in sequence to get an idea of what is happening internally.
Uses in Pregnancy
Doctors and medical teams in many parts of the world use sonogram technology as a way to monitor pregnancy. Sonogram pictures can help identify the basic anatomy of a developing fetus, and can often detect birth defects and abnormalities very early on. Most of the time, this technology can also identify the gender of the growing child.
Standard sonogram transducers cannot always detect the signs of a very early pregnancy. When there is reason to check on fetal progress within the first few months of development, medical experts must usually use what is known as a transvaginal transducer, a very narrow wand that must be inserted into the pregnant woman’s vagina. Once in place, the transducer is usually able to detect the presence of fetal growth — and can often even capture the baby’s heartbeat.
Other Medical Uses
Healthcare practitioners commonly use ultrasound technology to investigate unknown causes of internal pain as well as to diagnose and monitor unusual growths such as tumors. The images produced from the sound waves can help experts get a clear visual of what is happening inside the body. The technology can identify organ malformations, bruising, or other internal injuries. Getting a good picture before surgery or other treatment can help medical professionals make the best, most appropriate recommendations.
Sonograms are widely considered low-risk, and are typically classified as “non-invasive.” This does not mean that they are always entirely safe, however. The sound waves used have been known to heat body tissues slightly, and can also create small pockets of gas on rare occasions. While not necessarily harmful, these effects will occasionally cause complications, particularly when blood vessels and bone density are involved — heated gasses in these areas can cause discomfort, blood clotting, and structural weakening.
To mitigate the possible risks to a developing child, most medical professionals use sonograms only intermittently in pregnancy. Though parents often want to see images of their growing baby at each doctor visit, this is not usually permitted unless there is a legitimate medical need. Limiting the number of sonograms administered is one of the ways that medical professionals protect babies from potential risks. Listening to the fetal heartbeat and monitoring the mother’s blood work are often just as effective at making sure the baby stays healthy as a real-time picture is.
Preparation for the Procedure
Sonograms are typically very easy to perform, and patients do not usually need to do anything special to prepare. Wearing loose-fitting clothing is usually a good idea, as technicians will often need to shift or move garments around in order to place the transducer on the skin. Otherwise, just remaining calm and taking deep breaths is usually the best way to get ready.