New Technology May Help Detect Early Labor

Is your body getting ready to go into labor too soon? A promising new study offers a technique for doctors to make the call—using an ultrasound ... for your cervix.

New Technology May Help Detect Early Labor

Besides not having a baby name picked out or the crib assembled, giving birth early can have very serious consequences, including low birthweight and a host of medical problems in the newborn. This is why new research that could help identify when a pregnant woman's cervix is soft and susceptible to preterm labor is so welcome in the parenting and medical communities.

An ultrasound for your cervix

Recently, a team of scientists associated with North Carolina State University, Institut Langevin, and Paris-Descartes University performed a proof-of-concept study to physically determine cervical stiffness using ultrasound technology known as shear wave elastography (SWE). The group followed the pregnancies of 157 women while conducting SWE measurements using a SuperSonic Imagine commercial scanner during their normally scheduled sonograms. Those with below average SWE wave speed between 24 and 35 weeks gestation were found to be more likely to go into early labor.

While firmness of the cervix is typically observed manually, Marie Muller, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at NC State and lead author of the paper published in the journal Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology, thought it natural to use such ultrasound techniques to help distinguish early cervical softening, which would put a woman at increased risk of preterm labor.

So you're at risk, now what?

As far as the potential for medical professionals to administer treatment if they do detect a risk, Muller says it depends upon what's responsible for the preterm labor. "There are a couple of things people can do, including bed rest or tocolytics—drugs that will stop premature labor or contractions—but they're controversial because they don't stop real labor," she says. "They can stop premature contractions from ripening the cervix though."

Although additional research needs to be done, it's not hard to imagine OB-GYNs using SWE during routine exams. Muller says that it's still very early and more expensive than using a regular ultrasound scanner. "The technique won't yet be available in most medical and imaging centers," she adds.

In the meantime, this is all the more reason to stay in close communication with your doctor and ask if you are at risk for premature labor. Lower your risk by avoiding cigarettes and smoke, seek professional help if you're experiencing depression, maintain a healthy body weight, and keep any medical issues—from gum disease to hypertension—in check. Then, try to enjoy your pregnancy, there's only so much you can control!