Career Profile: Ultrasound Technology: A Gift from Nature

Nurse Anesthesiologist

Did you know that Ultrasound Technology operates on scientific principles utilized by such animals as bats and dolphins? That’s right. The term ultrasound actually refers to any sound above a frequency 20,000 hertz, or the maximum limit of human hearing. And although we cannot perceive these sounds, a variety of natural creatures can both detect and produce ultra-high frequency acoustic signals. Bats, for instance, emit ultrasonic sounds and then listen for them to be echoed off their surroundings. From the duration and volume of these echoes, a bat is able to create a picture of his environment that allows him to navigate and catch tiny insects in pitch darkness. In fact, the precision of this method is nothing short of staggering: a bat can tell the difference between a flying moth and a falling leaf while flying at full speed! (GSU)

Known by scientists as echolocation or biosonar (short for biological sonar), this sonic navigation system is also employed by dolphins and whales, who use it to find their way in the murky depths of the sea. After studying these creatures, engineers were able to create the sonar systems of submarines, so that in the 20th century, whales and dolphins were accompanied by human beings navigating their way beneath the waves. In addition, marine biologists are still studying the extent to which these water-borne mammals can actually communicate with one another using this kind of sound.

Beginning in 1926 (Siemans), similar technology began to be used for medical purposes. In a method referred to as Medical Sonography or Ultrasonography, an Ultrasound Technologist, also known as an Ultrasonographer, uses a device called a transducer to view real-time, three-dimensional images of a person’s organs, muscles, or even developing baby! How it works is that the Ultrasonographer, after applying a sound-enhancing gel to the patient’s skin, places against it the transducer, which emits a beam of high-frequency sound waves into the body. These waves bounce off body fluids and soft tissues, and much like a bat echolocating, the transducer records the minute variations in the echoes and uses these to formulate a live feed of the person’s internal organs. The technique is absolutely painless and harmless, not to mention captivating to everyone who gets to view the inner workings of the human body. By examining the uterus, an Ultrasound Technologist has the privilege of allowing an expectant mother to see her unborn child for the first time.

In addition to obstetric purposes, Ultrasound modalities are used to image such areas as the eyes, abdominal organs, and blood vessels in order to diagnose infections, pain or swelling. And in 2001, Sonographers first broke into the field of Echocardiography, or the live imaging of a living heart (Siemans). In an electrocardiogram, a color-coding system allows the Technologist to see the velocity and direction of blood flow in real-time. Doctors use this recording to check for defects and proper functioning of the heart.

Plus, Medical Sonography, unlike Biosonar, can be used for more than just creating an image; even higher frequency ultrasonic waves can be used to disintegrate kidney stones and gallstones (USC). This technique has all but eliminated the need for invasive surgeries for these conditions. In addition, ultrasound can create localized heating, which is integrated into physical therapy programs and even cancer treatments (Wikipedia).

Obviously, nature’s genius in the utilization of ultrasonic waves has engendered a high-tech mode of medical diagnosis and treatment: Ultrasonography. With their expertise in this field, Ultrasound Technologists are at the cutting-edge of bettering people’s lives and exploring the limits of ultrasound for the medical industry. Who thought that we would have bats and dolphins to thank for this extraordinary technology?


Georgia Southern University, Hyperphysics

University of Southern California Department of Surgery, Kidney Transplant Program

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