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Prenatal Portraits: Darling or Dangerous?

Many businesses offer ultrasound pictures and videos of unborn babies for entertainment purposes, but some experts say these fun pictures could be harmful.

The Power of Imaging

In medicine, the advantages and disadvantages of procedures and treatments are constantly evaluated. As Patricia D. Stahr, executive director of the Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine remarks, "Risk exists in everything."

For her and for her organization, the risk of a keepsake ultrasound outweighs its benefits. "I wouldn't undergo any procedure that may cause a harmful effect unless I had to," says Stahr.

The Society endorses the AIUM's statement on ultrasounds, which recommends use only when there is a medical need. Other groups that support this position include the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS), the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS), and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

According to the AIUM, diagnostic ultrasound has been around since the late 1950s. Since its use, there has been no significant evidence showing imaging harms patients or operators. One problem is that it would be unethical to expose people to ultrasound energy for research purposes.

Officials at the FDA point to research suggesting prenatal ultrasound exposure may cause delayed speech in children and left-handedness in boys. In higher doses, ultrasound energy can raise temperature in metals and treat bone fractures, sprains, and pulled muscles.

The power of ultrasound energy must be respected, say experts.

"One must be cautious [with ultrasound], not just use it because you want to use it," says Lawrence Platt, MD, director of the Center for Fetal Medicine and Woman's Ultrasound in Los Angeles and past president of the AIUM. "It doesn't mean that we believe that every time you use an ultrasound, you're harming a fetus. But it also doesn't mean we can guarantee that it is safe. No one can guarantee it is safe."

Mark Hayward, owner of 3DBabyVu, disagrees. "It's totally safe," he says. "High-risk [obstetric] patients are actually put through a protocol of weekly or biweekly ultrasound exams in their last trimester. It makes me wonder, why would the babies at most risk see the highest amount of ultrasound if it wasn't safe?"

To reassure customers, Hayward says 3DBabyVu employs licensed sonographers who use the lowest ultrasound frequency possible and for no more than 20 minutes.

Platt says ultrasound exposure at any length of time or level does not ensure protection from harm. "This isn't something that should be randomly done without really strong medical indications."

Laurinda Andrist, RDMS, RDCS, president of SDMS, agrees, noting that in the obstetrics office where she works, she is careful not to overuse ultrasound on even the most high-risk patients. "The women don't come in and have an ultrasound at every visit," she says. "We need to manage their care and have medical information extracted from that examination."

Emphasizing the need for prudence, Andrist points to radiographers who used to take random X-ray pictures of their hands, only to find out years later that the radiation was harmful for them.

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