Got Joint Pain? You Need to get an Ultrasound

August 4, 2023
Imaging
by Kolton Opdahl

What is Ultrasound Imaging?

Chances are, you’ve probably heard of an ultrasound before, or maybe had to get one yourself. Ultrasound imaging uses soundwaves to create pictures of ligaments, tendons, joints, muscles, and nerves in the body. It is perfectly safe & non-invasive, and does not require any preparation. The purpose of ultrasounds is to help diagnose tears, sprains, strains, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal conditions.

The imaging process uses gel and a small probe called a transducer; both of which go on the skin. Then, sound waves travel from the probe & gel into the body, to which the probe collects the returning sounds and uses those waves to create an image. Unlike x-rays, ultrasounds do not use radiation. However, they still capture images/motion of internal organs in real time. Specifically, ultrasound imaging allows you to view pictures of muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and joints within the body. 

Common Uses of Ultrasounds

Typically, an ultrasound procedure assist with the diagnosis of many conditions including:

  • Tendinitis or tendon tears (torn rotator cuff, achilles tendon, etc)
  • Muscle tears
  • Fluid collections
  • Ligament tears / sprains
  • Hernias
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Cysts
  • Disclocations
  • Tissue masses

Learn More About Alternative Ways to Alleviate Your Pain

How to Prepare

There’s really not a lot of preparing required for an ultrasound exam. The primary thing you can do to make your life easier is to wear loose-fitted clothing and no jewelry, as you may need to remove clothing, jewelry, and possibly even change into a gown for the examination. If your child is the one being examined, make sure you bring something small to distract them so they don’t move around too much, as ultrasounds are highly sensitive to motion.

ultrasound imaging

How the Procedure is Performed

Generally speaking, ultrasound machines include a computer console, video monitor, and the transducer that we briefly mentioned earlier. To further explain, the transducer is a hand-held device that closely resembles a microphone. Their purpose is to send high-frequency sound waves into the body and listen to the echoes that bounce back. During an exam, the nurse applies a little bit of gel to the exam area and places the transducer in it because the gel allows those sound waves to travel back and forth. Once these steps are complete, the ultrasound image will be visible on the video monitor based on the frequency and amplitude of the ultrasound signal.

Patients are usually seated on a table or chair for musculoskeletal exams and lying down for other exams. The radiologist will most likely ask you to move the joint that’s being examined so they can analyze the specific function of your ligaments, tendons, joints, or muscles. With children, ultrasound exams are often performed with the child lying on their back. When the patient is positioned properly, the doctor will begin the procedure. 

There is typically no pain, discomfort, or pressure when the radiologist presses the transducer on the area of examination unless that part of your body is tender. At the end of your examination, the doctor will wipe off the excess gel from your skin. The gel will not stain clothing. You can expect the ultrasound to last anywhere between 15-30 minutes, or sometimes a bit longer.

Results

Sometimes, the radiologist who conducts your ultrasound will discuss the results after the exam. But in most cases, the radiologist will send their signed report to the doctor who requested the exam. When this is done, the doctor should share the results with you, which means you can expect to schedule a follow-up exam, depending on the circumstance.

Benefits, Risks, & Limitations of Ultrasound Imaging

Benefits:

  • Non-invasive
  • Painless
  • Simple, widely available, and not very expensive
  • Extremely safe
  • Provides clear picture / greater detail of tissues & cartilage that are not seen by x-rays
  • Real-time imaging
  • Faster than an MRI
  • Cost Effective ($100-200 vs an MRI that could be $1500)

Risks:

  • There are no known risks of diagnostic ultrasounds on humans.

Limitations:

  • Ultrasounds generally can’t see the inner surface of bone structures, unless it’s an infant with more cartilage. This is where other diagnostic tests such as an MRI comes in – so doctors can see the internal structure of the bones or joints.
  • Sound waves may have some trouble penetrating through deeper structures in larger patients.

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