Proof-of-concept study shows potential for using ultrasound to detect early signs of preterm labor

August 18, 2015 by Matt Shipman

Researchers from North Carolina State University, Institut Langevin and Paris-Descartes University have conducted a proof-of-concept study that raises the possibility of using ultrasound techniques to detect cervical stiffness changes that indicate an increased risk of preterm labor in pregnant women. While additional work needs to be done, it may ultimately give doctors a new tool for determining when to provide treatment that can prevent preterm birth.

Premature births can mean low birth weights and other medical problems for newborns, but there are steps that doctors can take to reduce the chances of if early warning signs are detected. One of those early symptoms is a softening of the cervix. Traditionally, this stiffness is assessed by manually palpating the cervix.

"But that's a subjective measure, and we wanted to determine if ultrasound could be used to quantitatively assess how stiff the cervix is – and, by extension, whether a woman is at risk of going into labor prematurely," says Marie Muller, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the work.

Muller and her colleagues decided to try a technique called shear wave elastography (SWE), which was developed to assess tissue stiffness for cancer diagnosis. They reasoned that if SWE worked for detecting changes in other body tissues, it may also work for detecting changes in the cervix.

Working with a maternity hospital in Paris, the researchers did SWE measurements of 157 who were already scheduled for ultrasounds. The researchers then followed each patient's pregnancy.

The researchers found that patients between 24 and 35 weeks pregnant who had below average cervical stiffness were at higher risk of going into .

In SWE, stiffness is measured based on how fast a mechanical shear wave propagates through the tissue. What the researchers found was that if the wave was more than one meter per second below the baseline for a woman's gestational age, or how far along she is in her pregnancy, the woman was more likely to have a .

"This work is only a first step," Muller says. "We know the technique is reproducible. We know we can measure these changes in cervical stiffness. However, we need to do a longitudinal study that follows patients throughout pregnancy. That would give us a better understanding of how cervical stiffness changes over the course of pregnancy – and that would help us determine which changes are likely indicative of early onset labor."

Muller also notes that, while the SWE technique uses high-end ultrasound equipment, the equipment can be used for normal prenatal examinations as well as SWE assessments of cervical stiffness, which would hopefully mitigate any additional cost.

The paper, "Assessment of the Cervix in Pregnant Women Using Shear Wave Elastography: A Feasibility Study," is published in the journal Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology.

Explore further: Cervical component protects against infection and preterm birth in mice

More information: "Assessment of the Cervix in Pregnant Women Using Shear Wave Elastography: A Feasibility Study." DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ultrasmedbio.2015.06.020

Related Stories

Cervical component protects against infection and preterm birth in mice

November 11, 2014
Preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn deaths worldwide. Maternal infection is one known cause of preterm birth; however, preventative antibiotic treatment has not lowered preterm birth rates. The cervix provides structural ...

Presence of intra-amniotic debris a risk for early preterm birth in first pregnancy

February 11, 2013
In a study to be presented on February 14 at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine's annual meeting, The Pregnancy Meeting, in San Francisco, California, researchers will report findings suggesting an increased risk of ...

Study shows progesterone fails to prevent preterm birth in high risk group

October 18, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—A formulation of the hormone progesterone, shown to be effective in women at risk for another preterm birth because they had a prior preterm birth, was not found to be effective in preventing preterm birth ...

Cervical stitch has risks, decreases pre-term births for few women

April 18, 2012
Cerclage is a well-known medical procedure which places stitches around the cervix. These stitches are intended to provide support to the cervix in the hopes of reducing preterm birth in women at risk for early labor. Premature ...

Study finds variation of the interval between first and second pregnancy

February 2, 2015
In a study to be presented on Feb. 5 in an oral concurrent session at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine's annual meeting, The Pregnancy Meeting in San Diego, researchers will report that the variation of interval from ...

Recommended for you

Hope for couples suffering IVF miscarriage

September 20, 2017
Women who miscarry during their first full round of IVF are more likely to have a baby after further treatment than women who don't get pregnant at all.

Does mother's mental health affect pregnancy?

September 13, 2017
(HealthDay)—Three common mental health disorders—depression, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder—pose no serious threat to pregnant women or the health of their babies, a new study finds.

Preeclampsia may boost heart disease risk by altering blood vessels

September 12, 2017
Preeclampsia may permanently change the blood vessels of women who experience the condition during pregnancy, boosting their lifelong risk for cardiovascular disease, according to Penn State researchers.

Discovery of genes linked to preterm birth in landmark study

September 6, 2017
A massive DNA analysis of pregnant women has identified six gene regions that influence the length of pregnancy and the timing of birth. The findings, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, may lead to new ...

Older wombs linked to complications in pregnant mice

September 5, 2017
Deciding to start a family later in life could be about more than just the age of your eggs. A new study in mice suggests the age of a mother's womb may also have a part to play. This work, led by Dr Myriam Hemberger at the ...

Study suggests simple way to predict preterm births

September 4, 2017
Up to 18 percent of babies born worldwide arrive before they are full-term, defined as 37 weeks of gestation. About 1 million of those babies do not survive, and those who do can face developmental problems such as impaired ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.