Ultrasound Therapy Treatment for Chronic Pain

Ultrasound therapy is a treatment used by physical therapists or occupational therapists to relieve pain and to promote tissue healing.

While ultrasound therapy is not effective for all chronic pain conditions, it may help reduce your pain if you have any of the following:

A person receiving ultrasound therapy
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Types of Ultrasound Therapy

The two main types of ultrasound therapy are thermal and mechanical. Both use sound waves generated by a transducer head (which looks a bit like a microphone) to penetrate soft tissues.

The difference between the two types of ultrasound therapy is the rate at which the sound waves penetrate the tissues.

Thermal ultrasound therapy uses a more continuous transmission of sound waves.

The sound waves cause microscopic vibrations in deep tissue molecules, increasing heat and friction. The warming effect encourages healing in soft tissues by increasing metabolism at the cellular level.

Mechanical ultrasound therapy uses pulses of sound waves to penetrate tissues.

While this still has a minor warming effect, it also causes expansion and contraction in tiny gas bubbles in soft tissues. This decreases the inflammatory response, which reduces swelling and decreases pain.

The type of ultrasound therapy you get depends on your condition. For myofascial pain, strains, or sprains, thermal ultrasound therapy is typical. For scar tissue or swelling, like with carpal tunnel syndrome, mechanical ultrasound may work better.


Click Play to Learn More About the Use of Therapeutic Ultrasound

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

How Ultrasound Therapy Is Performed

When you go in for ultrasound therapy, your therapist will select a small surface area to work on for anywhere from five to 10 minutes.

A gel is applied either to the transducer head or to your skin, which helps the sound waves evenly penetrate the skin.

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

Will I Feel Anything?

Some people feel a mild pulsing during ultrasound therapy, while others may feel a slight warmth in the skin.

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.

Ultrasound therapy, however, should not be painful.

Is Ultrasound Therapy Safe?

Ultrasound therapy is deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provided it is performed by a licensed person and provided the therapist keeps the transducer head moving at all times.

If the transducer head remains in one place for too long, there is a potential to burn the tissues underneath, which you may or may not feel.

Ultrasound therapy should not be used on these body parts:

  • Over the abdomen, pelvic regions, or lower back in women who are menstruating or pregnant
  • Over lesions, broken skin, or healing fractures
  • Around the eyes, breasts, or sexual organs
  • Over any areas with plastic implants
  • Over or near areas with malignant tumors
  • Over areas with impaired sensations or blood flow

Additionally, it should not be used on people who have pacemakers.

Does Ultrasound Therapy Work?

The literature is mixed on the benefits of ultrasound therapy.

Some studies show that it can effectively control certain types of chronic pain, while others say there's little difference between ultrasound therapy and other traditional therapy treatments (such as heat, stretching and electrical stimulation) for pain control.

A 2017 study showed that while people receiving ultrasound therapy showed some improvement, a platelet-rich plasma injection was more effective than both ultrasound therapy and steroid injections for shoulder periarthritis.

A Word From Verywell

As with pain medication, finding the treatment modality 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 doctor about trying something else.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you use ultrasound therapy for neck pain?

    You can use ultrasound therapy for neck pain. However, there is no guarantee that it will offer substantial relief. In a series of controlled studies on ultrasound therapy for neck pain, only a quarter of overall participants in the trials felt significant pain relief, while others experienced just a small improvement. The treatment is safe but its effects may be improved with other methods of pain relief.

  • Why do physical therapists use ultrasound therapy?

    Physical therapists use ultrasound therapy for a few different reasons. When a hot pack cannot reach deeper layers of the body, a physical therapist may wish to use ultrasound since it can reach these areas. Ultrasound therapy is a safe and reliable treatment method that might not always offer significant improvement, but its warming effects may help heal injured tissue.

  • Does ultrasound therapy have any contraindications?

    Yes, ultrasound therapy does have contraindications. People with certain conditions should avoid ultrasound therapy; this includes people who have cancer, are pregnant, have a pacemaker, have a reduced sensation of temperature, people with vascular issues, and children. No matter who you are, it may be a good idea to ask your healthcare provider about ultrasound therapy to see if it's right for you.

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9 Sources
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