When you hear the word “ultrasound,” you may think of its application during pregnancy as a tool that can generate images of the womb. This is diagnostic ultrasound used to capture images of organs and other soft tissues.

Therapeutic ultrasound is a treatment tool used by physical and occupational therapists.

Therapeutic ultrasound is often used for treating chronic pain and promoting tissue healing. It may be recommended if you experience any of the following conditions:

Physical therapists use therapeutic ultrasound in two different ways:

Deep heating

Your physical therapist (PT) might use therapeutic ultrasound to provide deep heating to soft tissue to increase blood circulation to those tissues. This could, theoretically, promote healing and decrease pain.

Your PT might also use this treatment with the goal of improving the flexibility of muscles to restore a full range of motion.


Your PT might use ultrasound energy to cause rapid contraction and expansion of microscopic gas bubbles (cavitation) around injured tissue. This, theoretically, speeds healing.

  1. Your PT will apply conductive gel to the body part in focus.
  2. They will slowly move the transducer head back and forth on the skin of the body part in focus.
  3. Depending on your specific condition, your PT may adjust the depth of penetration of the waves.

Commonly the treatment lasts 5 to 10 minutes, and it’s typically not performed more than once per day.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of therapeutic ultrasound by licensed professionals. It has the potential to produce harm if the heat is left in the same place too long. If, while being treated, you feel discomfort, alert your PT right away.

One potential risk with therapeutic ultrasound is that the rapid pressure changes during cavitation could cause a “microplosion” and damage cellular activity. This is unlikely to occur in most uses of the treatment.

While therapeutic ultrasound is considered generally safe in treating certain conditions, there are some areas in which it is not recommended, including:

Since the application of energy in the above circumstances has the potential to cause damage, always tell your PT if they apply to you.

The effectiveness of therapeutic ultrasound has not been documented through research. For example, a 2014 study on 60 people with knee osteoarthritis concluded that the use of the treatment offered no additional benefit in pain improvement and functions.

Although not necessarily supported by clinical research, therapeutic ultrasound is a popular and widely used treatment offered by many physical and occupational therapists.

Because it is safe and commonly used to treat various conditions, you may try ultrasound therapy to see if it improves your functionality and pain and then decide if it is worth continuing.

Therapeutic ultrasound is a tool in wide use by physical therapists. If it is offered to you as part of your treatment, it should always be part of an overall treatment plan that includes exercise, stretches, or other focused activities.