Scientists are divided on the matter of therapeutic ultrasound: on the one hand, it is the most popular method of physiotherapy, on the other, research does not really support its efficiency. Is there any good in it?
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Ultrasound has established itself as an essential element of modern medicine: getting an ultrasound of soft tissues is the first step to diagnosing and treating hundreds of diseases and injuries. All pregnant women get their ultrasounds, and so do all injured athletes. It is a great non-invasive way to see what’s going on inside your body.
Using ultrasound for healing purposes is a different matter entirely. Ultrasound, as you probably know, is a type of waves that cannot be heard by human ear due to their high frequency (though bats and dogs hear them). When directed into the soft tissues of the body, ultrasonic waves make cells vibrate rapidly, generating local heat that you cannot feel. Essentially, ultrasound therapy is vibration therapy, and it is meant to help fix a lot of health issues.
What US is supposed to heal
Ultrasound therapy, or US, is one of the most common treatments provided by physical therapists: a special cold gel is applied, and a small device is moved along your skin, generating waves. It is used for a wide variety of purposes:
- Healing injuries – supposedly ultrasound promotes the growth of immune cells that repair damaged tissues;
- Breaking down scar tissue (though it requires long and frequent treatments);
- Restoring mobility and range of motion after an injury (more info here);
- Reducing pain and releasing muscle knots;
- Treating arthritis and other joint problems;
- Healing tendinitis (inflammation of tendons);
- Removing calcification from joints.
The issue with US is that, despite its popularity, research has failed to demonstrate its efficacy. While many patients report being satisfied with their treatments, not many claim to have an actual noticeable improvement. The number of studies on therapeutic ultrasound is surprisingly small, and most randomized trials have not found any significant difference between US and placebo (see here).
Note that US is not recommended to cancer patients, people with recent injuries (it can increase the swelling), and people with vascular issues. Ultrasound should not be applied to genitals, spine column, or eyes.
Novel uses of US: from fat burning to shock waves
Apart from treating injuries and inflammations, ultrasound can potentially have many other uses.
- ESWT, or extracorporal shock wave therapy – this is US, but much more intense and painful; unlike normal ultrasound therapy, this one definitely works for some inflammations and injuries (details here), though it is quite expensive.
- Fat-burning – a new device developed by Israeli scientists can break down fat deposits and release them into the blood – up to half a liter per sitting! The procedure allows to remove fat in particular areas and is completely safe and non-invasive, so that patients can do treatments once a month. Human trials are planned for this year.
- Healing surface injuries – innovative ultrasound “plasters” apparently can help heal wounds and ulcers much faster: ultrasound activates lymphocites (immune cells) and makes them gather around the would and repair the skin.
So should you try ultrasound? Handheld US devices for home use are cheap, and you can definitely experiment – it won’t hurt you. However, it is hardly worth spending money on professional US treatments: remember – its efficacy is not proved by science.
Overview of Therapeutic Ultrasound Applications and Safety Considerations – Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Efficacy and safety of extracorporeal shock wave therapy for orthopedic conditions: a systematic review on studies listed in the PEDro database – Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Ultrasound: Basic understanding and learning the language Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov