A simple ultrasound technique that measures stiffness in the cervix may be used to detect risk of preterm labour in pregnant women, new research has found.
Premature births can mean low birthweights and other medical problems for newborns, but there are steps that doctors can take to reduce the chances of premature birth if early warning signs are detected.
One of those early symptoms is a softening of the cervix. Traditionally, this stiffness is assessed by examining the cervix with hand.
"But that is 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 labour prematurely," said study lead author Marie Muller, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University.
The researchers decided to try a technique called shear wave elastography (SWE), which was developed to assess tissue stiffness for cancer diagnosis.
Working with a maternity hospital in Paris, France the researchers did SWE measurements of 157 pregnant women who were already scheduled for ultrasounds.
The researchers found that patients between 24 and 35 weeks pregnant who had below average cervical stiffness were at higher risk of going into preterm labour.
While additional work needs to be done to prove the effectiveness of the method, it may ultimately give doctors a new tool for determining when to provide treatment that can prevent preterm birth.
The findings were detailed in the journal Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology.