Benefits And Risks Of Veterinary Therapeutic Ultrasound

25 April 2017
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Therapeutic ultrasound began its roots with humans in the 1930s, but it's only been in recent years that this diagnostic piece of equipment has been used for rehabilitative purposes on animals. There are certainly advantages to having therapeutic ultrasound done, and talking with a veterinary ultrasound professional is the best way to know. But as with most medical treatments, there are benefits and risks. Here's what you need to know about how it can help your pet as well as the few risks associated with this therapy.

How Does Ultrasound Work as Therapy?

Most people are familiar with an ultrasound being used to diagnose certain conditions like an enlarged heart or the presence of a tumor. They're often preferred over x-rays because they don't emit radiation and they can show a better image in certain situations. But when used for therapy, this complex machine works a little differently.

In a therapeutic ultrasound, electrical currents are sent to a crystal, causing the crystal to vibrate and emit sound waves. These sound waves, or vibrations, penetrate the skin and tissue and gently pulsate the area, generating something likened to a warm, mild massage.

Therapeutic ultrasound can be used on ligament and tendon injuries, acute swelling, muscle injuries, slowly healing wounds, and to treat or prevent scar tissue formation.

Most veterinarians recommend treatment several times a week for 5-10 minutes, sometimes longer. A lot of it will depend on the size of the area, the condition that's being treated and its severity, and how well your pet is responding to treatments. If you're starting with less frequent visits and your pet doesn't seem to be improving, your vet may recommend increasing the frequency or duration of the therapy.

What are the Benefits?

Therapeutic ultrasound facilitates soft tissue healing in the following ways:

  1. If your pet has scar tissue that's limiting movement in one or more limbs or even around the spine, ultrasound can help soften and break down that tissue to improve mobility.
  2. The sound waves work to increase range-of-motion around a stiff or arthritic joint.
  3. The warmth increases blood flow which can expedite healing as well as reduce inflammation.
  4. It can reduce pain, muscle spasms, and increase the rate at which wounds heal.

Ultrasound therapy is found to be effective in the post-surgical healing process, sometimes speeding up the rate at which soft tissue heals. In one particular study, dogs that had surgery on their Achilles tendon and received ultrasound therapy afterwards recovered from lameness faster than the control group, displayed fewer adhesions, and displayed tendons with a more normal appearance. 

Therapeutic ultrasound can be used on dogs, cats, and horses. But that's not all. One study showed the benefits of ultrasound to include preventing and reversing wing contractures in birds with fractured wings.

Using ultrasound to treat conditions isn't painful and shouldn't be uncomfortable for your pet, and it rarely requires sedation of any kind. If your pet seems uncomfortable during the procedure, they may need to shift positions, or the user may be applying too much pressure with the probe. This is a rare occurrence, but most pets that are content to lie still do very well with their treatments.

What are the Risks?

There are few risks with therapeutic ultrasound, and most of them can be reduced, if not eliminated, when users are trained on proper use of the machine.

Ultrasound should be avoided on tumors as the sound waves and increased blood flow can accelerate their growth. It should also be avoided on bone implants, infected areas, over pregnancies, near the testicles of an intact male, over the eyes and skull, and on growth plates in babies.

Other risks include overheating of the area which may cause discomfort and squirming with your pet. This normally happens when the probe is held in one spot for too long. Constantly moving the probe around the treatment area can prevent this.

Because the risks are avoidable, the benefits of therapeutic ultrasound definitely outweigh the risks, particularly when the staff are properly trained.