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Read about the procedure for amniocentesis

Throughout your pregnancy, your prenatal care should include a variety of tests and examinations to ensure both your health and the health of your growing baby. Some of these prenatal tests are standard for any pregnant woman, while others are specific to the mother's condition and circumstances (age, race, family and medical history) or address particular concerns that arise through standard exams and that require further investigation. Amniocentesis falls into the latter category -- it is not a standard prenatal test for all pregnant women, but it is recommended for those who are 35 or older, or who have a family history of chromosomal abnormalities, or whose preliminary ultrasound or other testing has returned abnormal results.

What is Amniocentesis?

Amniocentesis tests for a number of conditions that tend to occur at a higher rate in pregnancies of women over 35, particularly spina bifida and other neural tube defects, and chromosomal abnormalities, including Down syndrome. It is performed after week 14 because having amniocentesis done earlier in the pregnancy can harm the fetus.

The procedure itself takes just a few minutes, although it can be painful. A needle is inserted through the mother's abdominal wall and retrieves a sample of amniotic fluid. Ultrasound is used to help safely guide the needle's path. Afterward, the mother may experience soreness at the site of the needle's insertion, cramping and fluid discharge.

The amniotic fluid is tested in a lab to detect any of the complications listed above; the test results of amniocentesis are 95 to 99 percent accurate, so they are very reliable.

Possible Risks of Amniocentesis

The most significant concern associated with amniocentesis is increased risk of miscarriage: the test can result in miscarriage for up to 1 in 200 women. And though it is rare, it is also possible for the needle that retrieves the amniotic fluid to touch the fetus.

For those who consider the procedure for amniocentesis to be not only invasive but dangerous, the risk of harm to the developing fetus may outweigh the potential benefit of knowing about and/or being able to prepare for what the baby's medical challenges or special needs will be.

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