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Ultrasound is high frequency sound waves -- specifically, it is the "sound of a frequency higher than the audible range of human beings" (wiki.engr.illinois.edu, 2012). This is why we cannot hear ultrasound when it is being used. Bats can, though, and they use ultrasound to locate prey. This occurs when bats make very high-pitched sounds, which hit objects in their path, and then bounce back to them. This ability improves their ability "see" in the dark.
For humans, ultrasound is widely known for providing expectant parents glimpses of their developing baby. Fetal ultrasound is an excellent example of the tremendous, yet safe, applications of ultrasound. Therapeutic ultrasound differs from this type of ultrasound, in that it is used to treat an injury or medical condition. Currently, it is used to ease pain and promote the healing of injured deep tissues and muscles. Increasingly, therapeutic ultrasound is used as a safer alternative to medical procedures, such as surgery.
Therapeutic ultrasound's benefits
Physical therapists and chiropractors have used therapeutic ultrasound for over 50 years, such as for the treatment of bursitis, tendonitis, arthritis, muscle sprains and strains, carpal tunnel syndrome and scar tissue damage. According to the website of the Great Lakes Physiotherapy Centres (greatlakes-physiotherapy.com), ultrasound can be used to:
- Apply deep heat to calm muscle spasms
- Reduce swelling, inflammation and calcium deposits
- Break up scar tissue
- Increase soft tissue elasticity, prior to exercise and stretching
- Improve blood flow and speed metabolism
- Promote bone healing
Some swear by ultrasound's ability to accelerate healing, while others claim this is due to a placebo effect (ptjournal.apta.org, 2001). However, most agree it is a safe treatment that, at minimum, successfully applies deep heat that can ease injuries.
For many years, researchers have been evaluating the use of therapeutic ultrasound for clinical medicine treatments. For instance, in 1998, University of Washington researchers studied the uses of ultrasound for treating kidney stones, dissolving blood clots, and stopping bleeding inside the body without breaking the skin (acoustics.org/, 1998).
Numerous organizations are continuing this research and promoting clinical uses of therapeutic ultrasound. These include the International Society for Therapeutic Ultrasound, established at China's Chongqing University (istu.org/) and Virginia's Focused Ultrasound Foundation (fusfoundation.org/, 2011).
Therapeutic ultrasound technician careers
The therapeutic use of ultrasound requires technicians to gain more comprehensive skills in the field. Instead of using ultrasound equipment for diagnosing purposes, such as to view a pregnancy or kidney stones, therapeutic ultrasound technicians use equipment for treatment purposes. To use this equipment correctly, you must learn the techniques associated with different therapeutic ultrasound uses, for instance, the adjusting of kilohertz (kHz), the frequency of ultrasound.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ultrasound technicians usually complete an associate or bachelor's degree in sonography. For those already working in a medical field -- such as radiation technology or nursing -- one year certificate programs are available (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). Most current ultrasound technicians work in hospitals and doctors' offices and use diagnostic imagine machines. However, as therapeutic ultrasound expands, more technicians may be needed to assist in therapeutic procedures. In this case, additional training is required.
If you use ultrasound technology as a physical therapist or chiropractor, you will use ultrasound in the treatment of injuries to muscles, bones, ligaments and other fibrous tissues.
Acoustical Society of America, "Therapeutic Ultrasound: A Promising Future in Clinical Medicine," Michael Bailey et al, June 23, 1998, http://www.acoustics.org/press/135th/crum.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Diagnostic Medical Sonographers," March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/diagnostic-medical-sonographers.htm#tab-1
Focused Ultrasound Foundation, April 11, 2011, "Our Mission," http://www.fusfoundation.org/About-Us/about-us
Great Lakes Physiotherapy Centres, Ultrasound in Physiotherapy, http://www.greatlakes-physiotherapy.com/physiotherapy-ultrasound.html
The International Society for Therapeutic Ultrasound, History of the International Society for Therapeutic Ultrasound (ISTU), http://www.istu.org/about/history.aspx
Physical Therapy, "A Review of Therapeutic Ultrasound: Effectiveness Studies," Valma J Robertson and Kerry G Baker, March 5, 2001, http://ptjournal.apta.org/content/81/7/1339.abstract
University of Illinois, College of Engineering, December 15, 2012, "The Science of Ultrasound within the Body," https://wiki.engr.illinois.edu/display/BIOE414/The+Science+of+Ultrasound+Within+the+Body
University of Waikato, Science Learning Hub, July 23, 2007, "Ultrasound," http://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/Contexts/See-through-Body/Science-Ideas-and-Concepts/Ultrasound
Candice Mancini is a writer, artist and educator. She has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in English and history.
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