Therapeutic ultrasound is a treatment modality commonly used in physical therapy. It is used to provide deep heating to soft tissues in the body. These tissues include muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments. Ultrasound in physical therapy is not to be confused with diagnostic ultrasound, which is an ultrasound that is used to see the inside of the body, such as checking on a fetus during pregnancy.
What Does Therapeutic ultrasound Do?
Therapeutic ultrasound is used primarily for two different effects: the deep heating treatment and non-thermal uses.
Deep heating effects: Ultrasound is often used to provide deep heating to soft tissue structures in the body. Deep heating tendons, muscles or ligaments increases circulation to those tissues, which is thought to help the healing process. Increasing tissue temperature with ultrasound is also used to help decrease pain.
Deep heating can be used to increase the “stretchiness” of muscles and tendons that may be tight. If you have shoulder pain and have been diagnosed with a frozen shoulder, your physical therapist may use ultrasound to help improve the extensibility of the tissues around your shoulder prior to performing range of motion exercises. This may help improve the ability of your shoulder to stretch.
Non-thermal effects (cavitation): Ultrasound introduces energy into the body. This energy causes microscopic gas bubbles around your tissues to expand and contract rapidly, a process called cavitation. It is theorized that the expansion and contraction of these bubbles help speed cellular processes and improves the healing of injured tissue.
Two types of cavitation include stable and unstable cavitation. Stable cavitation is desired when your physical therapist is applying ultrasound to your body. Unstable cavitation can be dangerous to your body’s tissues, and your physical therapist will ensure that this does not occur during the application of ultrasound.
How Does Ultrasound Work?
Inside your PT’s ultrasound unit is a small crystal. When an electrical charge is applied to this crystal, it vibrates rapidly, creating piezoelectric waves. These waves are emitted from the ultrasound sound head as ultrasound waves. The ultrasound wave then enters into your injured tissues during application of the modality. This increases blood flow and cavitation, leading to the theorized benefits of the treatment.
How Is Ultrasound Applied?
Ultrasound is performed with a machine that has an ultrasound transducer (sound head). A small amount of gel is applied to the particular body part; then your physical therapist slowly moves the sound head in a small circular direction on your body. The therapist may change various settings of the ultrasound unit to control the depth of penetration of the ultrasound waves or change the intensity of the ultrasound. Different settings are used in various stages of healing.
Alternative methods of ultrasound application are available if the body part is boney and bumpy, or if there’s an open wound. (The ultrasound gel and sound head may harbor bacteria that can enter the wound.)
Your physical therapist may use ultrasound gel combined with a topical medication to help treat inflammation around soft tissue in the body. This process is called phonophoresis. While there is some evidence that ultrasound waves help deliver the medicated gel to the injured tissues, most published studies indicate that this treatment may be ineffective.
What Therapeutic ultrasound Feels Like
While you are receiving an ultrasound treatment, you will most likely not feel anything happening, except perhaps a slight warming sensation or tingling around the area being treated. If the ultrasound sound head is left in place on your skin and not moved in a circular direction, you may experience pain. If this occurs, tell your physical therapist right away.