ultrasound or sonography, in medicine, technique that uses sound waves to study and treat hard-to-reach body areas. In scanning with ultrasound, high-frequency sound waves are transmitted to the area of interest and the returning echoes recorded (for more detail, see ultrasonics). First developed in World War II to locate submerged objects, the technique is now widely used in virtually every branch of medicine. In obstetrics it is used to study the age, sex, and level of development of the fetus and to determine the presence of birth defects or other potential problems. Its use to determine fetal sex has led to the widespread abortion of female fetuses in some countries, such as China and India, where male offspring are more highly valued. Ultrasound is used in cardiology to detect heart damage and in ophthalmology to detect retinal problems. It is also used to heat joints, relieving arthritic joint pain, and for such procedures as lithotripsy, in which shock waves break up kidney stones, eliminating the need for surgery. Ultrasound is noninvasive, involves no radiation, and avoids the possible hazards—such as bleeding, infection, or reactions to chemicals—of other diagnostic methods.
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