Key Point: Thermal Effects Apparent Before 8-Fold Intensity Increase

Fetal Thermal Effects of Diagnostic Ultrasound.


Abramowicz JS, Barnett SB, Duck FA, Edmonds PD, Hynynen KH, Ziskin MC. Journal of Ultrasound Medicine. 2008 Apr;27(4):541-59; quiz 560-3.


Processes that can produce a biological effect with some degree of heating (ie, about 1 degrees C above the physiologic temperature) act via a thermal mechanism. Investigations with laboratory animals have documented that pulsed ultrasound can produce elevations of temperature and damage in biological tissues in vivo, particularly in the presence of bone (intracranial temperature elevation). Acoustic outputs used to induce these adverse bioeffects are within the diagnostic range, although exposure times are usually considerably longer than in clinical practice.

Conditions present in early pregnancy, such as lack of perfusion, may favor bioeffects. Thermally induced teratogenesis has been shown in many animal studies, as well as several controlled human studies; however, human studies have not shown a causal relationship between diagnostic ultrasound exposure during pregnancy and adverse biological effects to the fetus.

All human epidemiologic studies, however, were conducted with commercially available devices predating 1992, that is, with acoustic outputs not exceeding a spatial-peak temporal-average intensity of 94 mW/cm2. Current limits in the United States allow a spatial-peak temporal-average intensity of 720 mW/cm2 for fetal applications. The synergistic effect of a raised body temperature (febrile status) and ultrasound insonation has not been examined in depth.

Available evidence, experimental or epidemiologic, is insufficient to conclude that there is a causal relationship between obstetric diagnostic ultrasound exposure and obvious adverse thermal effects to the fetus. However, very subtle effects cannot be ruled out and indicate a need for further research, although research in humans may be extremely difficult to realize.