Definition and Overview

Ultrasound therapy is a treatment method that makes use of ultrasound technology or, more specifically, sound waves to stimulate affected tissues in the body. While it has been in use in the medical field for various purposes for a long time now, ultrasound technology is more widely known for its role as a diagnostic tool rather than its therapeutic benefits. These lesser-known benefits include treating muscle injuries, which is why ultrasound therapy is widely used in musculoskeletal and sports medicine.

The efficacy of ultrasound technology as a therapeutic tool is based on its ability to stimulate the tissue beneath the surface of the skin using high-frequency sound waves ranging between 800,000 and 2,000,000 Hz. This healing effect was discovered in the 1940s, and was initially used only by physical and occupational therapists. Nowadays, however, the use of ultrasound therapy has spread to other branches of medicine.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

Ultrasound therapy is now primarily used in treating musculoskeletal injuries. Patients who will benefit greatly from ultrasound technology as a form of musculoskeletal therapy are those who are suffering from:

  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Tennis elbow
  • Lower back pain
  • Temporomandibular disorders
  • Ligament sprains
  • Muscle strains
  • Tendonitis
  • Joint inflammation
  • Metatarsalgia
  • Facet irritation
  • Impingement syndrome
  • Bursitis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Scar tissue
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

However, depending on the way and level at which ultrasound therapy is used, it can also be effective in treating serious, chronic diseases such as cancer. The different types of therapeutic ultrasound methods include:

  • Lithotripsy
  • Cancer therapy
  • Targeted ultrasound drug delivery
  • HIFU
  • Trans-dermal ultrasound drug delivery
  • Ultrasound hemostasis
  • Ultrasound-assisted thrombolysis

Once applied to the treatment area, ultrasound technology causes two main effects: thermal and non-thermal. Thermal effects are caused by the absorption of the sound waves into the body’s soft tissues, while non-thermal effects are caused by microstreaming, acoustic streaming, and cavitation, or the vibration of the tissues and the consequent formation of microscopic bubbles.

How Does the Procedure Work?

Ultrasound therapy comes in many levels, depending on the different frequencies and intensities of sound used. This kind of versatility is highly beneficial for a therapeutic tool because it allows the practitioner or therapist to adjust the intensity level to match the problem at hand. However, ultrasound therapy basically works by using sound waves that, when applied to specific parts of the body, effectively increase the heat level within the affected tissues.

In musculoskeletal uses, ultrasound therapy works in three ways:

  • It speeds up the healing process by increasing blood flow in the affected area.
  • It relieves inflammation and edema, which in turn reduces pain.
  • It softens up any existing scar tissue.

Ultrasound therapy is also capable of:

  • Breaking up foreign deposits inside the body, such as calculi deposits, i.e. kidney stones and gallstones; once broken down into smaller fragments, they can be passed from the body safely and easily
  • Improving the absorption and efficacy of drugs in a specific body part, e.g. ensuring that chemotherapy medications target the right brain cancer cells
  • Removing deposits during teeth cleaning procedures
  • Assisting in liposuction, i.e. ultrasound-assisted lipectomy
  • Provides guidance during a sclerotherapy procedure or an endovenous laser treatment, which are effective for the non-surgical treatment of varicose veins
  • Encouraging the regeneration of teeth or bones (only when low-intensity pulsed ultrasound is used)
  • Disrupting the blood-brain barrier for effective drug delivery
  • Working alongside antibiotics in destroying bacteria

To access these benefits, ultrasound has to be applied to the skin of the affected area using a transducer or applicator specially designed for this purpose. Once sound waves are released, these are effectively absorbed by the body’s soft tissues such as the ligaments, tendons, and fascia.

Possible Complications and Risks

Despite the widespread use of ultrasound technology, there are published guidelines for its safe use. This is to help avoid certain dangers regardless of how small their risk percentage may be. These risks include:

  • Burns caused by thermal ultrasound therapy
  • Hemorrhage caused by mechanical therapy
  • Substantial yet unpredictable bioeffects

However, due to the exclusive use of sound waves as the main component towards healing, ultrasound therapy does not pose the same potential dangers to patients as, for example, a radiation therapy does. Most importantly, the cancer risk is completely absent, even if the ultrasound procedure is repeated many times and exposure is accumulated.

To ensure the safety and welfare of patients, it is best to carefully consider the risks and the benefits of using ultrasound therapy. This involves weighing the expected benefits and comparing them with the risks involved before undergoing the procedure.

References:

  • American Society of Radiologic Technologists: “Ultrasound.”
  • FDA Consumer Health Information: “Taking a Close Look at Ultrasound.” RadiologyInfo.org: “General Ultrasound Imaging.”
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