The Fascinating Evolution of Ultrasound Technology

Ultrasound—also known as sonography—is a diagnostic and therapeutic technique that has been in use for almost a century. Fun fact: The original idea for sonography was inspired by the way in which bats navigate their world through echolocation. Simply put, bats emit high-pitched sound waves that bounce off the proximate world and return information about their surroundings.

According to Radiology Today, the French physicist Pierre Curie invented the original technology that allows for the sending and receiving of sound waves in 1877. Then, in 1915, another French physicist by the name Paul Langevin developed the first sonographic imaging machine. (As a matter of fact, the 1912 sinking of the Titanic inspired Paul’s invention. Paul wanted to create a device that would allow him to map the ocean floor for wreckage. He didn’t realize at the time that his invention would carry such profound implications for exploring the human body!)

Not long after that, doctors began to employ rudimentary sonograms in medicine. And, the rest is history. Advances in ultrasound technology have increased exponentially since then, providing a portable and effective diagnostic system that routinely saves lives.

How is Ultrasound Technology used in Modern Medicine?

Clinicians use sonogram technology to view live images of the body’s interior. This technique allows for a quick and noninvasive view of our organs. And, ultrasound accomplishes this without the danger of radiology exposure or stuffing someone inside an uncomfortable MRI tube. Because of the easy accessibility and portability of ultrasound machines, doctors employ this technology to investigate a number of internal organs and biological happenings. From visualizing the chambers of the heart to searching for cysts in the kidneys, ultrasounds can fulfill multiple imaging needs.

In essence, an ultrasound is exactly what it sounds like: ultra sound.  Just like sonar from a submarine, a sonogram emits inaudible ultrasonic sound pulses through a metallic treatment wand.  Moving through a gel applied to the skin, these sound waves ricochet off of the internal structures of the body. The sonogram machine then collects structural information about the organs based upon changes in sound wave pitch, amplitude, etc.

In addition, the sonogram machine projects live images of these structures on a display screen. This allows your doctor to obtain spot-on knowledge of your internal organs in real time. Moreover, this immediate imaging is especially useful in emergency situations, where doctors cannot always wait for lengthier imaging techniques.

Ultrasound Expands into the World of Sports Injuries

Although widely used for diagnostic purposes, an ultrasound machine also fulfills another important medical objective: therapy. As a matter of fact, one of the original uses for ultrasound was in treating sports injuries. And, to this day, ultrasound functions as a commonly used therapy for soft tissue strains and sprains.

For instance, the body moves with the assistance of our muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Muscles provide the power; tendons attach these muscles to our bones; and ligaments connect bone to bone. These three soft tissues work together to facilitate the movement of our bones. However, when overworked, these structures can easily suffer damage. This can result in a specific type of injury that doctors routinely use ultrasound therapy to treat: strains and sprains.

But, how does a strain differ from a sprain? Strains occur when the muscles or their connective tendons are stretched to the point of damage or even ripping. For the most part, strains occur in the back, shoulders, and hamstrings. These injuries result from intense overuse during activities such as sports or in careers like construction that involve repetitive, heavy lifting.

In contrast, sprains usually result from the overstretching or tearing of ligaments that hold our bones together. The most common type of sprain affects the ankle. (Did you ever sprain your ankle as a kid when roller-skating or falling on the basketball court/soccer field? Sports injuries are the most common cause of sprained ankles.)

Soothing Strains & Sprains with Ultrasound Therapy

Doctors and therapists have used ultrasound technology for over half a century to treat muscle strains and ligament sprains. But, how does this imaging technique help to relieve the pain of these acute injuries?

Although researchers are hotly debating the science behind ultrasound therapy, the majority of clinicians agree. Sound waves can expedite healing by increasing temperature and blood flow to the injured area. Furthermore, the vibration and warmth created in these tissues draws blood to the area. As a result, this encourages healing cells to migrate to the site of the injury. Likewise, many clinicians believe that sound waves promote the development of collagen cells, which are crucial in the healing of muscles and other soft tissues.

However, we cannot go on without the disclosure that the science behind these claims is still inconclusive. There are also contraindicated conditions that may exclude some from even receiving this procedure. These conditions include spinal fractures or infections, venous thrombosis, and cancerous or malignant tumors. Despite this uncertainty, however, many clinicians have been using this technique for decades with thousands of pleased patients to vouch for its effectiveness.

To learn if you are a candidate for ultrasound therapy or one of our minimally invasive surgical procedures, contact our fellowship-trained surgeons at the Advanced Spine Center. With nearly 20 years of experience, our orthopedic surgeons are highly skilled in resolving soft tissue and spinal injuries.