Updated: December 6, 2021
At Summit Physiotherapy & Massage Therapy, we work closely with our clients to create custom treatment plans specific to their individual needs. We use an integrative approach to healing so we can work on long-term goals that will get the results you want in a way that is manageable for you.
Ultrasound therapy is a popular choice for treatment, but we have found that it is often misunderstood. We’ve put together some information about how ultrasound therapy works to help you understand its usefulness and limitations.
What is ultrasound therapy?
Ultrasound therapy, also referred to as therapeutic ultrasound, is a treatment used in physiotherapy to help reduce inflammation in an injured area, increase blood flow, reduce muscle and connective tissue stiffness, and help to break down scar tissue.
What is thermal ultrasound therapy?
Thermal ultrasound therapy is the same as all ultrasound therapy. The difference is that we change the parameters (heat, length, etc) so the tissues don’t heat up as much. Thermal ultrasound therapy can be used when a condition would be made worse with heat, (e.g. a new, acute, inflamed injury).
How does ultrasound therapy work?
A five-minute treatment of ultrasound in the affected area increases the temperature of the tissue being treated and increases blood flow, making the injured area more responsive to manual therapy. This increase in circulation helps with healing since all the properties that are vital to healing such as oxygen, specialized cells, proteins, and nutrients, are all located within the blood.
If the injury is still in the early stages of healing, longer intervals of ultrasound may be used. For best results, we have found that ultrasound works best as a supplementary technique to other treatments such as:
- Myofascial release — also known as manual therapy
- Intramuscular stimulation (IMS)
- Individualized strengthening and stretching program
How does ultrasound therapy for physiotherapy differ from a medical ultrasound?
Ultrasound used in physiotherapy is different from the ultrasound used for other medical purposes. Medical or diagnostic ultrasound is used to generate images of the internal structure of the body. It uses a transducer to send and then pick up the high-frequency sound waves as they bounce off the area where the ultrasound is applied. The waves that bounce back change depending on the type of tissue they make contact with and these changes are interpreted by a computer which then forms an image. Ultrasound used in physiotherapy is therapeutic which uses a different frequency and does not have a sensor to pick up the waves after they’ve been sent into the body, so this type of ultrasound does not produce an image.
How does ultrasound therapy differ from shockwave therapy?
Ultrasound therapy differs from shockwave therapy in many ways, mostly that ultrasound therapy is designed to increase blood flow and reduce inflammation, whereas shockwave therapy is designed to also increase blood flow, but it does so by intentionally causing trauma to the tissues by way of using a shockwave.
Shockwave therapy starts the healing process when injuries are stuck in the inflammatory phase of healing, it essentially re-aggravates the injury to get the body to heal itself.
What injuries can ultrasound therapy help treat?
Ultrasound therapy can be effective in the early stages of treating an acute injury or chronic pain. Some injuries best treated by ultrasound therapy include:
- Back pain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Frozen shoulder
- Joint pain and tightness
- Knee pain
- Muscle spasms
- Ligament injuries/sprains
- Muscle tears/strains
- Foot pain
- Rotator Cuff tear/tendonitis
After an injury, inflammation occurs. Inflammation is an important part of the initial healing process as it boosts the body’s immune response and promotes tissue regeneration. However, it can lead to excessive swelling, which restricts blood flow and causes the joints to stiffen. Also, healing cannot begin until the inflammatory phase has ended and therefore we want to remove the inflammation as soon as possible.
To reduce inflammation in these early stages, it is essential to use gentle and non-invasive treatments to help the injured area heal. Inappropriate manual treatment or aggressive techniques can be detrimental to your rehabilitation.
Benefits Of Therapeutic Ultrasound Treatments
Ultrasound is a broad-ranging therapy that can treat many conditions.
One of the many benefits of ultrasound therapy is breaking up scar tissue caused by injuries or surgery. Scar tissue can cause pain and restrict joint movement. Ultrasound helps by using high-frequency sound waves to break the fibres of the scar tissue down into smaller fragments. Depending on the amount of scar tissue, several treatments may be required.
If you are experiencing chronic pain from a slow-healing injury or your injury is not responding to other treatments, ultrasound therapy may also be beneficial. Ultrasound generates heat deep into the tissues, increases circulation and metabolism. This helps to encourage tissue repair, loosens the muscles and increases oxygen and other important substances to promote tissue regeneration and healing.
The heat created by ultrasound can also help increase flexibility. Ultrasound warms the tissues of muscles, tendons, and ligaments and allows them to stretch more. This added stretch increases the range of motion of joints and results in more flexibility.
What are the risks, limitations, or side effects associated with ultrasound therapy?
Not every treatment is going to work the same way for everybody. No two injuries are identical and we all heal a little differently. That being said, ultrasound therapy may not work for some, but it can result in decreased pain, help improve the healing process, scar tissue reduction, and increased joint mobility.
Side effects of ultrasound therapy are rare. Some patients can experience mild discomfort during the treatment resulting from a periosteal burn, which occurs when the thin membrane around the bone becomes overheated. If the ultrasound is stopped when the pain is first felt, tissue damage is avoided and no harm is done.
When should ultrasound therapy not be used?
As a passive therapy, ultrasound is considered low-risk, but it does have limitations and should not be used on:
- Young children
- Pregnant women (chest, abdomen, or back)
- Open wounds
- Heart (especially if you have a pacemaker)
- Reproductive organs
- Cancerous areas
- Areas with decreased sensation
Frequently Asked Questions
How often can you use ultrasound therapy?
Ultrasound therapy can be used as often as necessary, there are no limits. We usually use it for five minutes at a time during treatment. Whether we use it or not will depend on the client’s injuries.
Can ultrasound therapy be painful?
Ultrasound therapy should not hurt! If it does hurt, we ask that our client’s let us know if they feel any pain to avoid a periosteal burn. A periosteal burn is where the lining of the bone can overheat and burn.
Are there different types of ultrasound therapy?
There are technically different types of ultrasound therapy, however, they are all the same, they just have different parameters. These parameters include Intensity, power, and time (length of treatment).
Is ultrasound therapy safe?
Yes, ultrasound therapy is safe! Our experienced physiotherapists won’t use it over any metal implants, the heart, the back or stomach (if someone is pregnant), the reproductive organs, any skin conditions, and cancer.
Does ultrasound therapy help nerve damage?
No, ultrasound therapy cannot help nerve damage.
Ready to find out if ultrasound therapy will work for you?
Ultrasound can be a useful part of a comprehensive treatment plan that helps you recover from injuries.
You want your body back at its optimal performance level, and we want to help get you there! If you’re injured, book an appointment with one of our skilled physiotherapists to get started on the best treatment plan for your recovery.