Can Ultrasound Technology Reduce Inflammation? A New Study Suggests It Might

ultrasound probe device

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study showed that ultrasound waves elicit an anti-inflammatory response in humans
  • The therapy was conducted using existing technology.
  • Ultrasound therapy is painless and noninvasive.
  • Current treatments for inflammation can come with dangerous side effects.

For people with autoimmune diseases, heart issues, asthma, or myriad other chronic conditions, inflammation can mean pain and discomfort. A recent study shows potential for relief using familiar technology: ultrasound.

While most people associate ultrasound with imaging, researchers recently tested the technique on the spleen to produce an anti-inflammatory response in a noninvasive way.

The study, published in the most recent edition of Brain Stimulation, was the first of its kind conducted on humans. Lead researcher Stavros Zanos, MD, PhD, associate professor in the Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, and his co-researchers used either focused ultrasound neuromodulation of the spleen (sFUS) or sham stimulations to attempt to elicit an anti-inflammatory response.

The results were encouraging: Those that received the sFUS showed an anti-inflammatory effect and lowered the production of a key inflammatory protein called tumor necrosis factor (TNF) for more than two hours after treatment.

Zanos spoke with Verywell about the experiments and their potential for future options for treatment. One of the most important aspects of sFUS is its noninvasive nature.

A Noninvasive Option With Few Side Effects

According to Zanos, similar results have been reached before, but they always required an implanted electrical device, making treatment very invasive and costly. Scientists have known that electrical stimulus triggers the autonomic nervous system for roughly 20 years, first by testing on mice and later on humans.

“The problem with this approach is that it involves an implant, either in the vagus nerve or other nerves in the abdomen,” Zanos said. “This is where ultrasound comes in. We found that the ultrasound used for imaging also activates nerves when you set the right parameters for it.”

Zanos’s research focused on the spleen since the body’s blood supply passes through that organ. The spleen regulates blood levels, screening for pathogens and old or damaged red blood cells. The spleen is full of immune cells that can affect various conditions.

“A lot of very common diseases—from hypertension and obesity to heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias—are associated with chronic inflammation, and the spleen is part of that response,” he said.

The study used existing ultrasound technology but applied it for a longer amount of time than is necessary for basic imaging. Even with a longer amount of time, Zanos said that there were few, if any, side effects. In fact, even the extended treatment still fell within the FDA limits of what is considered a safe amount of ultrasound.

Existing Treatments Come With Side Effects

Inflammation can be a symptom of many conditions, but is intrinsically linked to autoimmune diseases, said Stuart D. Kaplan, MD, chief of rheumatology at Mount Sinai South Nassau. Current treatment options start with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or naproxen, but once inflammation increases beyond the benefits of these medications, the side effects also increase.

Steroids, immunosuppressants like methotrexate and other anti-cancer drugs, and biologics such as monoclonal antibody treatments are more intensive treatments. Kaplan said that biologics revolutionized the treatment of autoimmune-related inflammation, but they are not without their drawbacks.

“Biologics suppress the immune system, making the patient more susceptible to infection,” Kaplan told Verywell. “They may also make the patient more susceptible to malignancy, especially lymphoma.”

Anti-inflammatory diets often make headlines, but Kaplan said that the supporting data for claims that nightshades—such as tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers—promote inflammation is debatable. Some foods may have anti-inflammatory properties, such as some specific types of cherries or pineapple, but Kaplan said that an anti-inflammatory diet is far from a silver bullet.

When Will the Treatment Be Available?

The new research is promising, but it’s just the beginning of human trials. Since most inflammatory diseases are chronic, potential treatment plans could include ultrasound therapy several times a week.

“The chronic nature of inflammation creates some challenges. How do you administer this? Is it an outpatient clinic? A machine at home where they self-administer the therapy?” Zanos said. “There there very important things we need to address in the future.”

Zanos predicts that future applications will use a customized ultrasound for this use only, stripping away most of the other diagnostic functionality of existing hospital ultrasound machines.

What This Means For You

While the study was the first of its kind using human subjects, it shows great promise for noninvasive, low side-effect treatment of inflammation for a variety of conditions. In the meantime, traditional anti-inflammatories are available depending on the symptoms. Always consult your doctor if you’re experiencing pain or inflammation.

1 Source
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  1. Zanos S, Ntiloudi D, Pellerito J, et al. Focused ultrasound neuromodulation of the spleen activates an anti-inflammatory response in humans. Brain Stimul. 2023;16(3):703-711. doi:10.1016/j.brs.2023.04.003

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.