That’s a loaded question.
Let’s define what therapeutic ultrasound is. Therapeutic ultrasound is a treatment that has been used in physical therapy clinics for over 60 years. It can provide heat to injured body parts that lie deep within your body. Ultrasound is also thought to improve cellular function by causing microscopic gas bubbles near your injury expand and contract rapidly. These expansions and contractions or cavitations are thought to speed up the healing process in your injured body part.
Does it work?
The easiest answer I can give is that the total body of research into the effectiveness of therapeutic ultrasound is not so positive. With 60 + years of use clinically, the best we can definitively say it that ultrasound can heat tissue up to 1 inch in depth. Its ability to speed healing has been brought into question by numerous systematic reviews in the last 10 years leading some to abandon its use.
Why then is ultrasound still in widespread use clinically?
Many therapists feel that they get a positive benefit when using ultrasound as part of their treatment plans. Most current research shows that this is more likely due to a placebo effect than an actual change in tissue physiology. Therapists can often be reluctant to change how they practice even in the face of strong evidence that what they are doing is of little to no value.
What would you suggest instead?
I would suggest a more active, hands on approach using soft tissue and joint mobilization techniques combined with correcting aberrant movement patterns caused by an injury. These are an often overlooked cause of delayed healing of an injury. In my opinion, increasing a patient’s ability to move correctly and then increasing frequency of that correct movement pattern would do more for healing than rubbing an ultrasound head over injured tissue.
Gavin Cribb, DPT