Diagnostic Ultrasound: Evaluating Athletes at a Faster Pace
Mar 23, 2021
While most people think of ultrasound as a device used during pregnancy, it is an important tool used by many medical specialties – including sports medicine. In the hands of a skilled operator, the ultrasound can be used to diagnose injuries to bone, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves. For some sports medicine physicians, this tool has become as valuable as their stethoscope. This portable device can be transported from room to room, or even to the sidelines, to help better evaluate patients.
Ultrasound machines send sound waves through a probe that comes in contact with gel on the skin. These sound waves then produce an image on a screen by reflecting off body tissues back towards the probe. With the detailed images produced by an ultrasound, you can see if a body part is normal or abnormal – such as swollen, thickened, torn or stretched with extra blood flow in or around the area. Unlike an X-ray or MRI, the ultrasound images are not static – they can show movement.
Ultrasound is an extension of the physical exam. Just like when a physician examines a patient, the ultrasound can help them see swelling and instability, but with direct visualization under the skin surface. If a patient pinpoints their pain to one area, the ultrasound can be used to look at that spot for the exact cause – such as a broken bone, torn ligament or stretched tendon.
For some common sports related injuries, diagnostic ultrasound has replaced other forms of advanced imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which typically come with a much higher cost. Unlike most types of imaging, ultrasound provides pictures in real time and allows the physician to see body parts in motion.
Ultrasound has several benefits. It is:
Safe – no radiation exposure
Portable – can go anywhere the physician can go
Convenient – can be used as a point-of-care tool on the same day as your visit
Dynamic – can be used to assess muscle, tendons or ligaments during motion or under stress
Ultrasound is also used to help guide interventional procedures, such as injections. With an ultrasound, the provider can watch a needle approach the intended target, improving the accuracy of the procedure. Compared to palpation guided procedures, injections done with ultrasound have been shown to be more effective.
Ultrasound exams also allow for more patient-physician interaction. Patients are able to watch the ultrasound machine screen as the physician is performing their evaluation and can ask questions during the procedure, learning more about their body and injury. And because ultrasound is a point of care test, same day evaluations can eliminate wait times and need to schedule additional appointments. This ultimately leads to faster evaluation, treatment and, importantly, the athlete’s return to their sport!
Drew Duerson, MD, is a member of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine team. Dr. Duerson is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and is board certified in pediatrics and sports medicine by the American Board of Pediatrics.
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