What is Ultrasound Imaging of the Musculoskeletal System?
Ultrasound imaging, also called ultrasound scanning or sonography, involves the use of a small transducer (probe) and ultrasound gel to expose the body to high-frequency sound waves. Ultrasound is safe and painless, and produces pictures of the inside of the body using sound waves. Ultrasound examinations do not use ionizing radiation (as used in x-rays). Because ultrasound images are captured in real-time, they can show the structure and movement of the body's internal organs, as well as blood flowing through blood vessels.
Ultrasound imaging is a noninvasive medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions.
Ultrasound images of the musculoskeletal system provide pictures of muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and soft tissue throughout the body.
What are some common uses of the procedure?
Ultrasound images are typically used to help diagnose:
- Tendon tears, such as tears of the rotator cuff in the shoulder or Achilles tendon in the ankle
- Abnormalities of the muscles, such as tears and soft tissue masses
- Bleeding or other fluid collections within the muscles, bursae and joints
- Benign and malignant soft tissue tumors
- Early changes of rheumatoid arthritis
- Joint effusion (fluid) or synovial (lining of the joint) thickening
- Localization of joint injections
- Localization of PRP or whole blood injections for treatment of tendonosis
- Diagnosis of cysts
- Diagnosis of joint swelling and bleeding
What does the equipment look like?
Ultrasound scanners consist of a console containing a computer and electronics, a video display screen and a transducer that is used to do the scanning. The transducer is a small hand-held device that resembles a microphone, attached to the scanner by a cord. The transducer sends out inaudible high frequency sound waves into the body and then listens for the returning echoes from the tissues in the body. The principles are similar to sonar used by boats and submarines.
The ultrasound image is immediately visible on a video display screen that looks like a computer or television monitor. The image is created based on the amplitude (loudness), frequency (pitch) and time it takes for the ultrasound signal to return from the area of the patient being examined to the transducer, as well as the composition of body tissue through which and the type of body structure the sound travels through.
How does the procedure work?
Ultrasound imaging is based on the same principles involved in the sonar used by bats, ships and fishermen. When a sound wave strikes an object, it bounces back, or echoes. By measuring these echo waves, it is possible to determine how far away the object is and its size, shape and consistency (whether the object is solid or filled with fluid).
In medicine, ultrasound is used to detect changes in appearance of organs, tissues, and vessels or detect abnormal masses, such as tumors.
In an ultrasound examination, a transducer both sends the sound waves and receives the echoing waves. When the transducer is pressed against the skin, it directs small pulses of inaudible, high-frequency sound waves into the body. As the sound waves bounce off of internal organs, fluids and tissues, the sensitive microphone in the transducer records tiny changes in the sound's pitch and direction. These signature waves are instantly measured and displayed by a computer, which in turn creates a real-time picture on the monitor. One or more frames of the moving pictures are typically captured as still images. Small loops of the moving "real time" images may also be saved.
How is the procedure performed?
For certain ultrasound examinations of the musculoskeletal system, the patient may be seated on an examination table or a swivel chair. For other ultrasound exams, the patient is positioned lying face-up or face-down on an examination table. The physician may ask you to move the extremity being examined or may move it for you to evaluate the anatomy and function of the joint, muscle, ligament or tendon.
A clear water-based gel is applied to the area of the body being studied to help the transducer make secure contact with the body and eliminate air pockets between the transducer and the skin that can block the sound waves from passing into your body. The sonographer (ultrasound technologist) or physician then presses the transducer firmly against the skin in various locations, sweeping over the area of interest or angling the sound beam from a farther location to see an area of concern better.
When the examination is complete, the patient may be asked to dress and wait while the ultrasound images are reviewed.
This ultrasound examination is usually completed within 15 to 30 minutes but may occasionally take longer.
What will I experience during and after the procedure?
Ultrasound examinations are painless, fast and easily tolerated by most patients.
After you are positioned on the examination table, the physician or sonographer will apply some warm water-based gel on your skin and then place the transducer firmly against your body, moving it back and forth over the area of interest until the desired images are captured. There is usually no discomfort from pressure as the transducer is pressed against the area being examined.
If scanning is performed over an area of tenderness, you may feel pressure or minor pain from the transducer.
Once the imaging is complete, the clear ultrasound gel will be wiped off your skin.
After an ultrasound examination, you should be able to resume your normal activities immediately.
Who interprets the results and how do I get them?
Your physician is specifically trained to supervise and interpret ultrasound examinations; they will analyze the images, and will share the results with you.
Follow-up examinations may be necessary, and your doctor will explain the reason why another exam is needed. Sometimes a follow-up exam is done because a suspicious or questionable finding needs clarification with additional views or a special imaging technique. A follow-up examination may be necessary so that any change in a known abnormality can be monitored over time. Follow-up examinations are sometimes the best way to see if treatment is working or if an abnormality is stable over time.
What are the benefits vs. risks?
- Most ultrasound scanning is noninvasive (no needles or injections).
- Occasionally, an ultrasound exam may be temporarily uncomfortable, but it is almost never painful.
- Ultrasound is easy-to-use and less expensive than other imaging methods.
- Ultrasound imaging is extremely safe and does not use any ionizing radiation.
- Ultrasound scanning gives a clear picture of soft tissues that do not show up well on x-ray images.
- Ultrasound provides real-time imaging, making it a good tool for guiding minimally invasive procedures such as needle biopsies and needle aspiration.
- Unlike the strong magnetic field of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound is not affected by cardiac pacemakers, ferromagnetic implants or fragments within the body. Ultrasound is also an excellent alternative to MRI for claustrophobic patients.
- Ultrasound may actually have advantages over MRI in seeing tendon structure, which is better seen by ultrasound than MRI.
For standard diagnostic ultrasound, there are no known harmful effects on humans.