Ultrasound Therapy Treatment for Chronic Pain

Ultrasound therapy, also called therapeutic ultrasound or focused ultrasound, is a noninvasive treatment method used to relieve pain, improve circulation, and promote tissue healing.

Typically a physical therapist, or a professional who helps individuals manage pain and improve mobility, administers this treatment. Occupational therapists, or professionals who help individuals with acts of daily living, may offer ultrasound therapy as well.

A person receiving ultrasound therapy on their knee.
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This article explains uses for therapeutic ultrasound, as well as how it's performed. It also covers how effective and safe it is.

What Is Ultrasound Therapy Used For?

Ultrasound therapy uses sound waves generated by a transducer head, which looks a bit like a microphone, to penetrate soft tissues.

This may be used to provide deep heating to tissues, which may help with pain. It may also be used to cause cavitation, which describes making very tiny gas bubbles that expand and contract quickly. This helps break up tissues and deposits, such as painful kidney stones.

Ultrasound therapy may be potentially helpful in treating pain associated with several conditions:

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved therapeutic ultrasound for the treatment of some chronic pain conditions, more research is still needed.

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Click Play to Learn More About the Use of Therapeutic Ultrasound

This video has been medically reviewed by Laura Campedelli, PT, DPT.

How Is Ultrasound Therapy Performed?

When you go in for ultrasound therapy, your therapist will select a small surface area to work on based on your specific condition. Treatments may last for five to 10 minutes, but this can vary depending on your needs.

A gel is applied either to the transducer head or to your skin. This helps distribute the sound wave energy and prevents the transducer from getting too hot.

During your ultrasound therapy treatment, your therapist will continually move the transducer head over and around the selected area.

Is Therapeutic Ultrasound Painful?

Ultrasound therapy is not painful if the therapist keeps the wand moving continuously. However, if the wand is held in one spot for more than a few seconds, it can become uncomfortable.

Don’t be surprised, however, if you feel nothing at all, apart from the cold gel on your skin. If the area being treated is especially sensitive to touch, you could possibly feel discomfort as the transducer head passes over.

Let the therapist know if you experience any discomfort.

Is Ultrasound Therapy Safe?

Studies suggest that ultrasound therapy is a safe, non-invasive treatment method when administered properly.

Ultrasound therapy should be performed by a licensed professional with a device that has been approved by the FDA.

Ultrasound therapy is not safe to use:

Is Ultrasound Therapy Effective for Chronic Pain?

While the FDA has approved ultrasound therapy as a treatment modality for many chronic pain conditions, more research is still being done for other possible uses.

Studies suggest that ultrasound therapy can be used effectively for treating certain chronic pain conditions as an early stage, non-invasive option. It is also used as an alternative treatment option, or as a complement to more invasive methods such as surgery.

Summary

Ultrasound therapy is a non-invasive, generally painless treatment that is typically administered by a physical therapist or an occupational therapist.

It has been FDA approved to help treat a variety of pain conditions and has been shown to be generally safe when done properly. However, certain individuals should not have this treatment done.

A Word From Verywell

Finding a treatment method that works best for your pain is often a trial and error process.

If you haven't had any improvement in your pain after several ultrasound treatments, ask your therapist or healthcare provider about other options that may work better for you,

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you use ultrasound therapy for neck pain?

    You can use ultrasound therapy for neck pain. Research suggests that it may be a beneficial treatment for reducing the intensity of neck pain when compared to no treatment or a sham treatment.

  • Why do physical therapists use ultrasound therapy?

    Physical therapists may use ultrasound therapy to help reduce pain and inflammation.

  • How often should you use ultrasound therapy?

    It depends on the condition being treated, but research suggests it is safe to use as needed.

  • Can ultrasound therapy be used for inflammation?

    Yes. Research suggests that ultrasound therapy may improve joint function and reduce pain associated with inflammatory conditions, like arthritis.

  • What are the side effects of ultrasound therapy?

    It is generally not associated with side effects if done properly.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Miller DL, Smith NB, Bailey MR, et al. Overview of therapeutic ultrasound applications and safety considerations. J Ultrasound Med. 2012;31(4):623–634. doi:10.7863/jum.2012.31.4.623

  3. Qing W, Shi X, Zhang Q, Peng L, He C, Wei Q. Effect of therapeutic ultrasound for neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2021;102(11):2219-2230. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2021.02.009

  4. Noori SA, Rasheed A, Aiyer R, et al. Therapeutic ultrasound for pain management in chronic low back pain and chronic neck pain: a systematic reviewPain Med. 2020;21(7):1482-1493. doi:10.1093/pm/pny287

  5. Ilter L, Dilek B, Batmaz I, et al. Efficacy of pulsed and continuous therapeutic ultrasound in myofascial pain syndrome: A randomized controlled study. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2015;94(7):547-54. doi:10.1097/PHM.0000000000000210

  6. Palanisamy P, Alam M, Li S, Chow SKH, Zheng Y. Low‐intensity pulsed ultrasound stimulation for bone fractures healing: a reviewJ of Ultrasound Medicine. 2022;41(3):547-563. doi:10.1002/jum.15738

  7. Focused Ultrasound Foundation. Focused ultrasound for the treatment of pain.

  8. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Ultrasonic therapy product or ultrasonic diathermy.

  9. Focused Ultrasound Foundation. Focused ultrasound and chronic pain.

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.