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Diagnostic vs Therapeutic Ultrasound Therapy for Chronic Pain

Ultrasound therapy uses pulses of sound waves to penetrate tissues. It causes expansion and contraction in tiny gas bubbles in soft tissues, decreasing the inflammatory response and reducing swelling. It can also be a great tool to help treat chronic pain. You can learn more about the procedure with the information we provide below. Don’t forget to discuss the best treatment for you with your physical therapist - we are here to help. This is just one of many tools we can employ to increase your mobility, reduce your pain - and get you back to doing what you love! 

You may hear the term "ultrasound" thrown around here and there during your chronic pain diagnosis or treatments. With all of the types of ultrasound out there, it's easy to get confused. Here's what you should know about diagnostic ultrasounds and ultrasound therapy, which are commonly used in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic pain.

To get a clearer picture of what is going on under the skin, a healthcare provider may order a diagnostic ultrasound. Diagnostic ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves that bounce around, providing a picture of specific areas in the body. If you think of the type of ultrasound used in pregnancy, you are picturing something pretty close to a diagnostic ultrasound for chronic pain.

Diagnostic ultrasounds may be used to determine the cause of pelvic pain, to diagnose tumors causing pain or to examine other structural abnormalities that may cause certain types of chronic pain.

Ultrasound Therapy

Ultrasound therapy is often performed by a physical therapist as a pain treatment. Ultrasound therapy can be used in two ways: thermally, as a heat agent, and mechanically, as a vibration agent. A physical therapist may choose one or both ultrasound approaches, depending on your chronic pain condition.

Ultrasound therapy for chronic pain is not usually used as the sole therapy but is considered a useful adjunct for some forms of chronic pain.

Thermal Ultrasound

This type of ultrasound therapy is like applying a very deep heat: It penetrates the deep tissues, warming them up to encourage the healing of soft tissues. A physical therapist might use thermal ultrasound to treat a strained muscle that has not healed as expected. Thermal ultrasound may be helpful with symptoms related to strains and sprains. A 2017 study looking specifically at the role of therapeutic ultrasound in knee arthritis found that it did reduce pain (especially at night) and improve function for a period of time but did not help substantially in the long-term control of pain.

Mechanical Ultrasound

A mechanical ultrasound causes tiny vibrations in the soft tissue, which can decrease swelling and inflammation in order to reduce some types of pain. Mechanical ultrasound, like thermal ultrasound, also promotes soft tissue healing. A physical therapist might use mechanical ultrasound to break up deep scar tissues in the muscles or ligaments. Mechanical ultrasound is often recommended for conditions in which there is a build-up of scar tissue (fibrosis).

Which Is Right for You?

The type of ultrasound you will have depends on whether your healthcare provider is focusing on your diagnosis or your treatment. If she is looking for the cause of your pain, you will probably receive a diagnostic ultrasound. This may take place in the office, at a clinic or in a hospital, depending on what kind of detail is needed.

If you have already been diagnosed and your healthcare provider has ordered ultrasound treatment, you will be receiving ultrasound therapy, most likely performed by a physical therapist. This usually takes place in an outpatient therapy clinic, though it can be performed in the hospital setting if you are recovering there. Even if your healthcare provider has ordered ultrasound therapy, you should expect to receive additional physical therapy as well, as ultrasound is often administered along with other treatments such as exercise and stretching.

Ultrasound for Chronic Pain

Ultrasound therapy does not work on all chronic pain conditions. It may be helpful for those with arthritis, myofascial pain, pain caused by fibrosis (scar tissue), strains and sprains, and bursitis.

Treating Chronic Pain

If you are living with chronic pain, you're probably very familiar with the fact that the best treatment plans use a combination of different therapies.

Medications are often used to treat chronic pain, but most of these have significant side effects when used long-term, ranging from kidney disease or peptic ulcer disease with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to the potential for addiction to narcotics (opioids). In addition, medications treat pain, not the underlying condition which is causing the pain.

Therapies such as ultrasound and others, in contrast, may treat the underlying cause of your pain while providing pain relief. Even if you need medication, additional ways of treating chronic pain may decrease your need for these drugs. In addition, relaxation practices for chronic pain are helpful no matter which treatments you and your healthcare provider choose.


Coping with chronic pain is one of the more difficult trials people face, and if you have not lived with chronic pain it may be difficult to understand how pain can affect every aspect of your life. If you are living with chronic pain, check out these tips on living and coping with chronic pain.

Here at Miller PT, we’ve combined the best in time-tested traditional treatments with cutting-edge technology, including tools such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and others. Get back to doing what you love safely and fast. Call us today and schedule an appointment at (561) 278-6055. For more content, join our Facebook community.

Reference: [https://www.verywellhealth.com/ultrasounds-diagnostic-ultrasound-and-ultrasound-therapy-2564458]

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