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What to Know About Ultrasound Physical Therapy

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

Ultrasound — or ultrasonography — is an imaging technique used not just during pregnancy but also for many medical procedures. Ultrasound physical therapy is a branch of ultrasound, alongside diagnostic ultrasound and pregnancy imaging. It's used to detect and treat various musculoskeletal issues you may have including pain, tissue injury, and muscle spasms.

How Ultrasound Physical Therapy Works

The ultrasound machine works by sending an electric current through crystals found in the ultrasound probe — also known as the ultrasound wand. The probe vibrates, causing waves to travel through the skin to the body underneath. The waves transfer energy to the tissues to cause the desired effects. Ultrasound can also be focused on tissues deep within your body without affecting other tissues close to the surface.

The frequency and intensity of the ultrasound, the duration of the procedure, and the area of its application all determine how ultrasound physical therapy is done.

Types of Ultrasound Physical Therapy

There are two types of therapeutic ultrasound: thermal and mechanical.

In thermal ultrasound, the wand causes the skin and the muscles to vibrate and heat up. Thermal ultrasound therapy is used to treat stretch pain, soft tissue pain, and other musculoskeletal issues. It can also be adapted to treat advanced issues like uterine fibroids, prostate cancer, and skin problems.

In mechanical ultrasound — also known as cavitation ultrasound therapy — the waves created by the ultrasound create pressure differences in tissue fluids, which lead to the forming of bubbles. As these bubbles interact with solid objects, they burst and create shockwaves. These shockwaves can be used in many ways like breaking down kidney stones and making them easier to remove.

Uses of Ultrasound Physical Therapy

Ultrasound is an effective way to treat swelling of muscles, joints, and ligaments.

Ultrasound can be used to treat a wide range of health problems. But, it's most commonly used to solve problems in muscle tissue. The heating effect of the ultrasound helps to heal muscle pain and reduces chronic inflammation.

Ultrasound also helps tissue fluids flow better — which means that more lymph passes through the tissues. Lymph is an important fluid that transports white blood cells throughout the body. So, in this way, ultrasound helps your damaged cells fight infections and heal faster.

Risks of Ultrasound Physical Therapy

Ultrasound physical therapy has a low risk of causing complications. But, exposure to low-intensity ultrasound for a long time may cause superficial burns on the skin. So, medical practitioners usually ensure that the ultrasound probe is in motion when in contact with your skin.

Cavitation ultrasound therapy can also cause minor discomfort due to the shockwaves it causes. To solve this problem, your doctor will administer you a sedative or anesthesia to manage the pain. Internal bleeding and scarring can also occur sometimes, depending on the total time you spend on the procedure and the duration you've been exposed to the shockwaves.

Therapeutic ultrasound is not used for problems near a pregnant woman’s womb because it could put the pregnancy at risk. It's also generally not used over the spine, eyes, pacemakers, other implants, and areas with active infections.

Benefits of Ultrasound Physical Therapy

Ultrasound physical therapy has many advantages:

  • The procedure is generally painless and easy to do. You'll be awake during the whole process without the need for anesthetics or pain relievers.
  • Therapeutic ultrasound has no known harmful effects when done right by your therapist.
  • The therapy will help alleviate body pain in the affected areas.
  • Ultrasound physical therapy is noninvasive; hence, it's safer than other methods.

What To Expect During Ultrasound Physical Therapy

On the day of the therapy, you should wear comfortable clothing that you can easily take off. Most of the time, though, the technician performing the procedure will assess the area without having you remove your clothes or wear a gown.

Before starting the therapy, the technician will inspect the skin for any infections, burns, or active wounds. If your skin is clear, then the technician will apply a hypoallergenic gel or cream to your skin. This will help keep air from coming between your skin and the wand and also help conduct the ultrasound waves to the tissues. The ultrasound will then be applied on your skin by the technician for about 10 minutes in a stroking motion.

Show Sources

SOURCES

National Institute of Biotechnology Information: "Effects of Therapeutic Ultrasound on Range of Motion and Stretch Pain," "Overview of Therapeutic Ultrasound Applications and Safety Considerations," "Ultrasound Therapy."

Physical Therapy: "A Review of Therapeutic Ultrasound: Biophysical Effects."  

Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology: "Therapeutic applications of ultrasound."

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