Ultrasound scanning | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - September 2003

Ultrasound scanning

But, more importantly, ultrasound is a crucial medical tool for doctors to check that a child is healthy, and that allows any problems to be caught early on.

In fact, ultrasound also has many other less well known benefits, such as helping tissue repair where muscles and ligaments are torn or strained, as well as many other therapeutic uses. So not only can it help doctors to detect problems, it can actually help solve them too. Projects funded by Action Medical Research have been at the centre of the development of ultrasound into the lifesaving tool it is today.

How does it work?

Ultrasound scans are based on completely harmless sound waves, which travel through the body, through skin and muscles, and get reflected back when they encounter harder objects, like bone and cartilage. The harder the object, the stronger the reflection. The reflected sound waves are used to create an image on a screen, showing exactly what’s going on inside the body.

When was it invented?

While the rudiments of sound wave technology can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, it was the two World Wars that provided particular impetus for developing the use of ultrasound, primarily to detect flaws in the metal hulls of large ships and to aid submarines’ navigation. In the 1940s, work began on using ultrasound as a medical diagnostic device.

Then in 1955 an Action Medical Research funded doctor, Professor Ian Donald, began to pursue the potential of the technique in the field of obstetrics. Despite initial scepticism from many quarters, Professor Donald’s work went on to change the face of pre-natal medicine.

What next?

New advances are still being made in the use of ultrasound — a team at Imperial College London have developed 4D scanning, which not only shows the baby in three dimensions, rather than the flat image we’re used to, but aims to produce the image in ‘real time’.

This will enable more effective detection of genetic abnormalities, such as heart conditions, reducing the need for invasive and risky amniocentesis. Building on the pioneering research of Professor Donald and his team, work goes on to give us an ever clearer picture of pregnancy.

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