What Is Shockwave Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 18, 2022
5 min read

If you’ve sustained an injury to a tendon, elbow, or hamstring, your doctor might recommend shockwave therapy. Before you balk at this painful-sounding technique, though, it may be comforting to know that it isn’t the same as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT or “shock” therapy), which is itself a commonly effective psychiatric treatment you’ve probably seen in movies, albeit portrayed in a very different manner than the more refined, modern approaches to this delicate procedure.

Shockwave therapy — which is also known as extracorporeal shockwave therapy — is administered to a tendon or muscle through the skin with a small, handheld device that’s similar to an ultrasound wand. Learn more about what makes this technique effective for injuries and who should consider it as a treatment.

If you’ve ever struggled with a sports injury or dealt with an ache that just wouldn’t mend, your body might have benefited from extra help during the healing process. Shockwave therapy can offer such help, jump-starting the body’s ability to regenerate new tissue. It also decreases your pain by directly stimulating your nerves at the site of the injury. Though the name of the treatment makes it sound painful, it’s only mildly uncomfortable for most people.

It’s often prescribed as a treatment for patients who have sports injuries like a golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow, or pulled hamstring. It’s also administered to patients who experience pain in their soft tissues, such as that caused by plantar fasciitis — a painful condition that affects the heels of the feet.

Shockwave therapy was developed in Germany during the late 1960s. Researchers began studying the effects of shockwaves on the human body and discovered that they affected different parts of the body in different ways: For example, electricity had little effect on fat but proved dangerous to the brain and the lungs. At this point, it was mostly used to break up painful kidney stones to make them easier for patients to pass.

In the 1990s, scientists began to study the effects of high-energy shockwave therapy on soft tissue injuries. Both high-energy and low-energy shockwave treatments work by sending pulses of energy to the injured area. 
Shockwave therapy may be used to:

  • Increase circulation around injured soft tissues
  • Break down calcified deposits (like kidney stones)
  • Stimulate cells that generate new bone tissue and connective tissue
  • Reduce pain by overstimulating nerve endings in the affected area

Shockwave therapy uses have grown in number since this treatment was invented more than 50 years ago, and researchers continue to discover new ways to use low-energy shockwaves to help patients deal with pain and regenerate tissue. If you have a musculoskeletal condition, you could benefit from extracorporeal shockwave therapy in the following ways:

It’s non-surgical. You can continue to live your life while you receive shockwave therapy for plantar fasciitis, bursitis, or tennis elbow instead of setting aside time for a lengthy surgical recovery. Practitioners usually start patients on a trial run of two or three sessions. If there’s no improvement after this point, they’ll help you reevaluate whether this is the right treatment for your condition.

Shockwave therapy can also be combined with a physical therapy program to get injured people back to work — or playing their favorite sport — faster. It's an ideal treatment for athletes who do not yet want or need surgery for chronic pain or injuries. 

Surgery can also be extremely expensive. 

It may help tough cases heal. Any type of tendinopathy can put you out of work for weeks at a time. At the very least, this type of nagging (and sometimes severe) pain can restrict your participation in hobbies and work. If your tendons are damaged, your doctor may begin with more standard, conservative treatment like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs while you undergo physical therapy. If PT doesn’t work, your practitioner might offer you a steroid shot.

Cases of tendon injuries that don’t respond to such treatment, though, may frustrate both physicians and patients. Plantar fasciitis, as one example, is a chronic condition that can be difficult to treat and causes patients a lot of pain. It often requires more than NSAIDS and rest but is also usually not severe enough to require surgery. 

Shockwave therapy offers a middle-ground treatment that might help the soft tissues regenerate. Shockwave therapy has also been FDA-approved as a treatment for lateral tennis elbow and plantar fasciitis, giving patients hope.

You shouldn’t expect many side effects when you undergo shockwave therapy. Think of the procedure as being similar to an ultrasound — though you will feel a bit of discomfort at the site of the therapy. Additionally, it’s important that you were prescribed this treatment by a licensed professional and that you only receive shockwave therapy from a qualified clinician. 

You might notice slight bruising or odd sensations in the spot where you were treated. This effect should be limited to numbness and mild swelling as the area heals, though. More severe side effects are not normal and should be reported to your doctor.

If you are interested in shockwave therapy, it’s important to consult your doctor about whether it would be appropriate for someone in your condition. While this treatment method doesn’t cause significant side effects for most people, there are situations where it shouldn’t be used. 

Your doctor probably won't recommend shockwave therapy, for instance, when soft tissue is torn beyond repair. That could increase the soft tissue damage in this case. Your doctor also won't consider shockwave therapy when an injury clearly needs surgery instead of a noninvasive treatment. 

Shockwave treatment also shouldn’t be used:

  • Close to the womb during pregnancy
  • On malignant tumors or nearby tissues
  • Near the brain or spine
  • Near the lungs
  • On a patient with any type of bleeding disorder

If you have any type of tendinopathy or soft tissue injury that isn’t responding to more conservative treatment, research suggests that shockwave therapy might be worth a try. Whether you choose shockwave therapy over another type of healing technique, though, is ultimately up to you and your doctor.