Does Therapeutic Ultrasound Work?

By Justin Boyle,

It's been said that music has charms to soothe a savage breast, but can artfully applied sound waves also relieve an aching back? In other words, we know of its benefits in diagnostic imaging, but does therapeutic ultrasound work to ease your aches and pains?

Therapeutic ultrasound explained

Therapeutic ultrasound may be used by physical and occupational therapists as a treatment for pain or as a method to promote the healing of tissues. While patients in the 1940s were given ultrasound therapy as a sort of cure-all for everything from gastric pain to eczema, these days it's used to reduce pain resulting from a more limited list of conditions that includes the following:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Bursitis
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Myofascial pain
  • Phantom limb pain
  • Painful scar tissue

Two different types of therapeutic ultrasound may be used, depending on the treatment goal. Thermal ultrasound therapy uses continuous application of sonic waves to deliver heat to deep tissues with the goal of encouraging healing by increasing cell metabolism. Mechanical ultrasound therapy transmits pulses rather than a continuous stream of waves with the intent to decrease inflammation by expanding and contracting the microscopic gas bubbles in soft tissues.

The sound waves generated by an ultrasound device typically bounce off of cartilage and bone and travel straight through tissue with high water or low protein content. Connective tissues, such as tendons, ligaments and fascia, tend to absorb the ultrasound and react more readily to treatment.

Is therapeutic ultrasound dangerous?

Ultrasound therapy is traditionally performed in a clinical setting, but devices do exist to allow chronic sufferers to treat themselves with ultrasound at home. Caution is recommended when treating yourself, since treatment can become uncomfortable if the ultrasonic heat is concentrated in one place for too long.

There are also a few bodily areas where therapeutic ultrasound is discouraged:

  • Around the eyes and sexual organs
  • Near malignant tumors
  • Over areas with restricted blood flow
  • On the abdominal region and pelvic girdle of menstruating or pregnant women
  • Around broken skin or healing fractures

People with pacemakers experience particular risk from ultrasound therapy and would do best to avoid it. Generally, however, therapeutic ultrasound is recognized as safe when applied by a careful, knowledgeable practitioner.

Does therapeutic ultrasound work?

Conclusive clinical proof has yet to be discovered for the across-the-board benefits of ultrasound therapy. Some studies show its singular effectiveness at treating certain types of pain, and some show its therapeutic equivalence to surface heat, massage, stretching and other noninvasive, nonpharmaceutical treatments for pain. Still others indicate that it performs exactly as well as a placebo.

Although the jury's still out on therapeutic ultrasound, some patients do report relief from the treatment where no other noninvasive methodology had been used with success. As with many analgesic therapies, it's sometimes just up to the patient's individual body to choose what it will let kill the pain.

Sources

Sonic Relief, "What is Therapeutic Ultrasound?," 2013, http://www.sonicrelief.com/learn/ultrasound.cfm
Sonic Relief, "Safety Warnings," 2013, http://www.sonicrelief.com/learn/safety.cfm
Radiology Today, "Ultrasound History," Beth W. Orenstein, December 1, 2008, http://www.radiologytoday.net/archive/rt_120108p28.shtml
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Ultrasonic Therapy Product or Ultrasonic Diathermy," June 6, 2012, http://www.fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/SurgicalandTherapeutic/ucm115937.htm
National Center for Biotechnology Information,"Use of ultrasonic vibration in the treatment of pain arising from phantom limbs, scars and neuromas; a preliminary report," D. Rubin and J.H. Kuitert, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, July 1955, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14388906
WebMD, "Painful Muscular Condition Responds to Noninvasive Ultrasound Treatment," Fitness & Exercise, Paula Moyer, February 28, 2000, http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20000228/muscles-ultrasound-treatment

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