What Is Ultrasound Therapy and Is It Right for Your PT Rehab?

Ultrasound technology has been around since the 1940s. And it has started to gain prevalence in recent decades for therapeutic use by physiotherapists.

More research is needed for ultrasound therapy when it comes to treating specific injuries. However, it is considered a safe and effective treatment for some forms of pain relief and tissue repair.  

So what exactly is ultrasound therapy? And is it right for your physiotherapy rehab clinic? Keep reading to find out.

What Is Ultrasound Therapy?

Commonly used in physiotherapy, therapeutic ultrasound is a type of treatment that uses sound waves and deep heating techniques to penetrate the skin’s soft tissue.

Areas of soft tissue most commonly treated by ultrasound therapy are tendons, muscles, joints, and ligaments. 

The treatment is intended to offer pain relief. And to expedite the healing process of damaged tissue. Ultrasound therapy is administered using a transducer head, also known as a sound head or a probe.

The probe is placed directly on the skin of the affected area. It then works in tandem with a transmission coupling gel. The gel is applied either to the head of the probe or directly to the skin.

The gel’s purpose is to control and moderate the sound waves. This ensures even distribution and penetration into the skin. Once the gel is applied, the therapist will slowly circle the probe around a small area, penetrating the skin to various degrees.

Therapeutic ultrasound is a pain-free procedure. Patients might feel a mild vibration or warm sensation during treatment. This is due to the coupling gel. Patients should not feel any type of pain whatsoever during the course of treatment. 

Make sure to do your research and review previous patient testimonials before agreeing to work with any physiotherapist. For those interested in a career in ultrasound therapy, visit the Gulfcoast Ultrasound Institute.

How Does It Work?

Inside the ultrasound probe is a small, vibrating crystal. The vibration is initiated by an electrical charge, which produces piezoelectric waves.

These waves are then transmitted as ultrasound waves, which increase blood flow in the area of treatment. The hypothesized benefits of ultrasound therapy are linked to these vibrating ultrasound waves. 

Ultrasound therapy is used to promote tissue healing rates, local blood flow, breakdown of scar tissue, and tissue relaxation. 

Types of Therapeutic Ultrasound

Ultrasound therapy is generally used to produce one of two desired effects. Depending on the type of injury being treated, physiotherapists will either administer deep heating or non-thermal treatment. 

Deep heating treatment works by raising the temperature of the soft tissue, which can reduce pain. It also improves blood flow, circulation, and elasticity of muscles. Which some studies have linked to expedited healing.  

This effect is achieved using thermal ultrasound therapy, which is administered by applying continuous sound waves to the affected area. 

Non-thermal treatment, also known as cavitation, works by transmitting energy in the body which produces tiny gas bubbles. This causes soft tissue to expand and contract, which is thought to aid in the recovery of damaged tissue. 

This is achieved by applying the sound waves to the skin in sporadic pulses rather than continuous contact. 

Which Type of Treatment Is Best?

Both deep heating (thermal) and non-thermal (mechanical) treatments are safe and are thought to be effective in treating different types of injuries.

People who suffer from myofascial pain or an unhealed muscle strain or sprain are likely to benefit most from deep heating ultrasound treatment.

Whereas people who suffer from injuries due to swelling or scarring are presumed to benefit more from non-thermal treatment. 

These differences are due to the way the sound waves penetrate the skin. Continuous penetration as seen in thermal treatments are more likely to reduce pain by improving circulation, which can positively impact unhealed strains. 

Pulsing treatment as found in mechanical (non-thermal) treatments are more effective at causing the tissue to expand and contract which can be more beneficial to reduce swelling and promote healing of scar tissue. 

Types of Injuries Treated 

Ultrasound therapy primarily treats injuries related to the body’s soft tissue. People suffering from back and neck pain, ligament tears and muscle sprains can potentially benefit.

Specifically, people with injuries and ailments like tendonitis, carpal tunnel, muscle strains, tendon tears, ligament injuries, and joint contractures might be able to find reprieve with ultrasound therapy. 

What Not to Treat

This type of treatment is only meant for orthopedic injuries, and should never be used over open wounds or lesions, around the eyes or sexual organs. 

Therapeutic ultrasound should never be used on parts of the body with metal implants such as knee or hip replacements, or near a pacemaker. It should also never be used over fractured bones or metastatic lesions. 

Supporting Research

Though ultrasound therapy is a common and safe physiotherapy treatment, research is limited as to its long-term effectiveness in treating chronic pain. 

Studies have found that therapeutic ultrasound can demonstrate positive results in decreasing swelling and promoting blood flow, and some patients have reported experiencing reduced pain after receiving treatment. 

Some experts believe that the sound waves emitted by ultrasound therapy are effective in improving tissue elasticity and circulation, which can in some cases result in improved mobility and decreased pain. 

A contrary belief is that the benefits of ultrasound therapy are largely contributed to the placebo effect. However, if those suffering from long term pain experience benefits from this type of therapy, there is no reason not to try it. 

The Takeaway

The bottom line is that more research is needed to prove any long-term effects of ultrasound therapy.

However, the proven effects of ultrasound therapy are increased blood flow, circulation and muscle relaxation. This, in some cases, can be linked to pain relief and faster muscle healing rates. 

Studies are inconclusive to the effectiveness of treating certain chronic pain conditions with therapeutic ultrasound, but some patients have experienced positive results after receiving the treatment. 

Regardless of the lack of research, both thermal and mechanical therapeutic ultrasound treatments are safe and common practices that have helped some patients achieve relief for injuries relating to soft tissue damage.