Text Size: A A A

Ultrasound: A Common Treatment Used in Physical Therapy

Peer Reviewed

Ultrasound is a passive modality: a supplement to the primary treatment (e.g. exercise). Passive modalities typically are used to relax the patient, as a distraction from pain, and/or to warm muscles for exercise.


ultrasound therapy


What is ultrasound?
Ultrasound equipment generates high-frequency sound waves that are transferred to a specific body area via a round-headed probe. The sound waves travel deep into tissue (e.g. muscles), creating gentle heat.

The old version of today's ultrasound was termed short-wave diathermy. This is seldom used today.

How is treatment administered?
The physical therapist usually applies a hypoallergenic gel to the skin, which creates a friction-free surface. Using gentle, circular motions with the probe, the therapist administers the treatment, which lasts several minutes.

Ultrasound can also be used in phonophoresis. This treatment involves the application of a topical anti-inflammatory. The anti-inflammatory medication can be mixed with the ultrasound gel and applied to the area using the probe. The ultrasonic sound waves force the medication to migrate into the tissues reducing inflammation.

Does the treatment hurt?
No. The patient will feel a tingling sensation in the treated area.

How does the patient benefit from ultrasound?
As the probe glides over the skin's surface, sound waves penetrate the skin's surface causing soft tissues to vibrate, creating heat. In turn, the heat induces vasodilation: drawing blood into the target tissues. Increased blood flow delivers needed oxygen and nutrients, and removes cell wastes.

The heat helps relieve pain and inflammation, reduce muscle spasms, and accelerate healing. Depending on the treatment area, range of motion may be increased.

Updated on: 02/06/10
Mary Rodts, DNP
Adjunctive care by a knowledgeable physical therapist with an expertise in the spine can be a great asset for the patient with a spinal problem. Recovery and rehabilitation can be enhanced and hastened.
Graeme Keys, PT, Dip MDT
Although this article is factual, my tendency would be to downplay the efficacy of ultrasound even more. In our best attempts to have patients take more responsibilty for their symptoms through active lifestyle, exercise, posture, etc, many still want to rely on ultrasound quite heavily.
Continue Reading:

Vertebral Column: Backbone of the Spine

The spinal column, better known as your backbone, is a strong yet flexible multipurpose structure. It is designed to protect the spinal cord, absorb and distribute shock, while supporting the weight of your head and torso and allows you to move in many directions. An excellent overview to help you understand the spine.
Read More