4D Ultrasound vs. 3D Ultrasound Pictures: What’s the Difference?


Ultrasound TechnicianOne of the more interesting times in pregnancy is the ultrasound. This technique makes use of sound to construct images of what is going on inside a mother’s uterus. Fetal pictures are produced when the ultrasound waves enter the uterus, and are then reflected back. By noting the patterns reflected back, it is possible to produce an image that shows what is happening inside the mother’s womb. In many cases, the images produced with the help of an ultrasound technician are used to assess the growth and health of the unborn child. The fetus can be observed, and health care professionals can look for abnormalities. In some cases problems caught early enough can be corrected with in utero surgery, allowing for some problems to be fixed before they can cause problems later.

For years, two-dimensional ultrasound images were the norm, showing black and white images. Now, though, technology has advanced to a point where 3D and 4D ultrasounds can be produced, instead of just relying on 2D ultrasounds. The technology is still relatively young, though, and 4D and 3D ultrasounds are often considered elective, meaning that few health insurance companies will pay for them, although some are willing in cases of high risk pregnancy.

There are differences between 3D and 4D ultrasounds. As you might imagine, a 4D ultrasound is more technologically advanced. There are differences in the way the two techniques are used medically, as well as for documentation purposes by expectant parents.

3D Ultrasound

3D UltrasoundA 2D ultrasound appears flat, and in black and white. It looks very like a standard photograph of what is going on with the fetus inside the mother’s body. A 3D image, though, adds another layer that makes it appear life like. The images include depth and additional color, offering access to a more lifelike appearance.

3D ultrasound images are made when the sound waves used to help construct the images are sent at different angles. With 2D ultrasound scanning, the sound waves are often reflected back in one direction. The 3D image is created by taking the results of the ultrasound scanning from different angles and compiling them, with the help of special computer software, to create an image that is more life like, and that includes depth.

These types of images offer a greater chance for identification of surface problems. For instance, the greater detail and depth offered by a 3D ultrasound can help identify some physical problems, such as a cleft lip, sooner and with more accuracy. A 3D image can often cost between $125 and $150 per session, depending on where you are.

4D Ultrasound

4D UltrasoundEven more advanced than a 3D ultrasound is the 4D ultrasound. The biggest difference is that a 4D ultrasound adds the element of movement. The sound waves are used to capture the movement and positioning happening inside the uterus. As a result, a 4D ultrasound appears as a video in many cases.

For the most part, while it can sometimes be possible to convince an insurance company to pay for a 3D ultrasound in cases of high risk pregnancy, or health worries, it is difficult to justify the use of 4D ultrasound images medically. However, they do offer enhanced diagnostic ability. A 4D ultrasound can help show some internal issues, such as with the heart and vascular system, or with the skeletal system, since they do include movement.

Many parents like to have the ultrasound videos, since they are interesting and can show the life moving inside them. However, these can get quite pricey, costing anywhere between $165 and $225 (or more) per session. There are companies that specialize in 4D ultrasounds, and will set the ultrasound to music, at your request.

Other Uses for 4D and 3D Ultrasound Pictures

Ultrasound analyzerWhile we think of ultrasounds as something that is primarily used for pregnancy, the truth is that ultrasounds can be used for other purposes as well. In mammograms, ultrasound images can be used to help measure breast tissue. On top of this, some operating rooms feature 4D ultrasound equipment that can help surgeons perform their duties more effectively. The live action feature, showing movement, can be a good guide for those who want to know what is happening inside the body. 3D and 4D ultrasound can also be used to determine the effectiveness of regional anesthesia, and can be very helpful during out patient procedures that involve peripheral nerve blocks for different types of out patient surgery.

Risks of 4D and 3D Ultrasounds

Ultrasound imageIt is important to note that 3D ultrasounds used for medical purposes have the same waves and intensity as those used in 2D ultrasounds. There is speculation that risk to fetal development from exposure to the ultrasound waves might be possible, but these are generally low, especially when used in medical settings.

Some equipment used to make 4D and higher quality 3D ultrasound pictures might actually use higher intensity ultrasound waves. While many agree that these energy waves are unlikely to cause damage, recommendations are that exposure to these energy waves by the developing baby be limited. Both the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration have issued opinions that non-medical use of ultrasounds for records, or for entertainment, are a misuse of medical equipment. With the lack of reliable data regarding the safety of these devices, many prefer to be safe. However, there are still many centers that specialize in offering these products to excited parents.

Uterus and fetal developmentBottom line: Ultrasounds can be very useful in a number of ways. They allow a view of the baby, which can provide information about the gender, as well as help health care providers identify possible problems. Additionally, ultrasound can help in non-pregnancy medical diagnostics. Advanced techniques of 3D and 4D ultrasound can provide better, more realistic pictures that can help health care providers get a clearer picture of possible problems, during pregnancy, surgery or in other situations.

Whether you choose to get a 3D or 4D ultrasound depends on your assessment of the risk, and whether you are willing to pay out of pocket for the images.

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