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How Do You Use an Ultrasound in Physical Therapy?

ultrasound of knee for pain in physical therapy

An ultrasound machine can do more than provide an image of a developing fetus. Although this is one of the more common uses of ultrasounds, other professionals also use these devices for a range of other applications and purposes. Consider how physical therapists use ultrasounds. Research shows more and more physical therapists are discovering that an ultrasound can be very helpful as a diagnostic tool. Ultrasound images can help identify injuries to tendons or ligaments, cartilage damage, inflammation, bone spurs, cysts, abnormal collections of fluid inside the joint (effusions), and structural abnormalities. These findings on ultrasound help doctors identify the underlying causes of knee pain.


Using an Ultrasound in Physical Therapy to Assess Client Needs

A 2023 paper titled Physical Therapists Use of Diagnostic Ultrasound Imaging in Clinical Practice: A Review of Case Reports in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy covers the various ways physical therapists may use ultrasound machines for diagnostic purposes. The researchers behind the paper found that physical therapists use ultrasounds to examine the following parts of the body most often:

  • Foot and lower leg
  • Thigh and knee
  • Shoulder and shoulder girdle
  • Lumbopelvic region
  • Elbow/wrist and hand


ultrasound of knee for pain in physical therapy diagnostic scanning

A doctor is performing an examination of the knee using a GE NextGen LOGIQ e ultrasound (shown above).


The following are some examples of scenarios in which a physical therapist may use an ultrasound. These scenarios aren’t theoretical. They reflect how actual physical therapists report using these devices:

  • A patient may complain about pain or discomfort in a particular area of their body. With a portable ultrasound machine, a physical therapist and a patient can examine the part of the body together. Doing so helps a physical therapist learn what may cause a client’s pain while also allowing the client to play a more direct role in their own care.
  • A patient might find their symptoms are worsening. Both the client and their physical therapist might not know why this would be the case at first. Using an ultrasound can allow a physical therapist to easily examine a client and potentially determine why their symptoms are staying the same or getting worse.
  • The referral diagnosis may not be consistent with the findings of a physical therapist upon working with a client. A physical therapist may thus use an ultrasound to determine the possible reasons for such inconsistencies.

Researchers also point out that usage of ultrasounds in physical therapy is a fairly new trend. Thus, new applications for ultrasounds in physical therapy are constantly emerging.


According to one journal article published on the National Library of Medicine Website titled A Stepwise Guide to Performing Shoulder Ultrasound: The Acromio-Clavicular Joint, Biceps, Subscapularis, Impingement, Supraspinatus Protocol"Shoulder pain is a common and painful patient condition. Unfortunately, diagnostic imaging of shoulder pain in the emergency department (ED) is often limited to radiography. While diagnostic for fractures and dislocations, drawbacks of radiography include time delays and non-diagnostic imaging in the case of rotator cuff pathology."


Examination of Shoulder Using High-Frequency Linear Diagnostic Ultrasound

Video (shown above) titled A Stepwise Guide to Performing Shoulder Ultrasound - A Simple Guide to Shoulder Ultrasound


The same article continues to say, "The incorporation of shoulder ultrasound in the ED may improve diagnostic certainty while decreasing time to diagnosis and treatment, yielding patient and health system benefits. Herein, we present the ABSIS (Acromio-clavicular joint, Biceps, Subscapularis, Impingement, Supraspinatus) Protocol for performing bedside ultrasound of the shoulder including the rotator cuff and bony anatomy."


Benefits of Using an Ultrasound in Physical Therapy

There are various reasons physical therapists are increasingly using ultrasounds for diagnostic purposes. Benefits of doing so include:

  • Portability: Many diagnostic ultrasound machines are portable. Thus, they’re particularly helpful for physical therapists, who may be meeting with clients in a variety of settings.
  • Affordability: Portable ultrasound machines are often more affordable than other imaging and diagnostic tools. However, that doesn’t mean they offer inferior results or services. Per the International Journal of Sports Therapy paper, the images a portable ultrasound machine generates are usually clear and detailed enough to serve a physical therapist’s purposes.
  • Lack of radiation: Some clients may have concerns about radiation exposure if a physical therapist were to use other imaging tools, such as an X-ray machine. As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) points out, the type of radiation an ultrasound machine uses in non-ionizing. Non-ionizing radiation doesn’t pose the same health risks that other forms of radiation may pose.
  • Non-invasive: Depending on the circumstances, an ultrasound machine may allow a physical therapist to diagnose a client’s condition and needs without resorting to potentially more invasive methods.

That said, physical therapists should research their options when choosing ultrasounds. Different machines offer different benefits.


Choosing an Ultrasound for Physical Therapy

A physical therapist considering using an ultrasound for diagnostic purposes should account for these factors when choosing one:

  • Practical factors, like their budget and how much space they have to work with
  • Image quality
  • Ease-of-use
  • Screen size
  • Weight
  • Ultrasound wave frequency

A physical therapist may also have to undergo training to learn how to use an ultrasound machine if they haven’t already. Doing so is a worthwhile investment. Using an ultrasound machine as a diagnostic tool can help a physical therapist better serve their clients. Their reputation may improve (and their business may grow) as a result.


Find the Right Ultrasound for Your Physical Therapy Practice

At Universal Diagnostic Solutions, we offer a range of ultrasounds from top brands for a variety of applications. Browse our online store or contact us today to discuss your needs!




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