Therapeutic Ultrasound

Healing sound waves

Therapeutic ultrasound has transcended the alternative care label to become a mainstay of the medical treatment for tissue injuries.

Ultrasound is not actually an electric treatment, but a mechanical one. This is a fairly subtle point, but what it means is that sound is a physical force, not an electric one; ultrasound works because sound waves impact against, and transmit some of their energy to, injured tissue. It's this transmission of energy, traveling at very high frequency, which causes a physiological effect.

The most popular use of ultrasound technology, in the traditional medical sense, is for pregnant mothers and babies. For this purpose, high-frequency sound waves create a computer image of fetal blood vessels, tissues and organs. However ultrasound may also be used to detect inefficiencies in a patient's heart, abdomen, internal organs and brain. It is effective because it is totally painless.

Ultrasound treatments are administered using an electronic device. This handheld device (hooked up to a large machine) emits sound waves at a frequency level far in excess of what human hearing can detect. A gel is spread on the surface of the skin covering the area to be treated. This serves a dual role. It allows the device to move smoothly over the skin without causing any discomfort. But more importantly, it prevents air from coming between the apparatus and the skin. A tight connection maximizes the transmission of the sound waves.

The sound waves travel at different speeds, and with different effects, depending on the tissue they encounter. But the healing outcome is owed to two effects: heat generation in damaged tissue, and acoustic streaming, the latter being the more important.

Heat generation can promote healing, and ultrasound is sometimes used for this effect, but acoustic streaming causes heightened excitability in cell membranes which, in turn, maximizes two processes: the body's healthy inflammatory response and the body's development of needed scar tissue.

The inflammatory response is the body's way of healing (although this process can get out of hand). Ultrasound can improve the body's efficiency in this process. Likewise, scar tissue development can be an important part of healing an injury, and ultrasound can maximize the efficiency of this process as well, by increasing protein fibroplasia and collagen synthesis.

If you've suffered an acute injury and need to get healed quickly, don't be surprised if your physician prescribes treatment with therapeutic ultrasound.

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