What are The 18 Most Popular Applications of Ultrasound in Medicine

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Ultrasound is one of the most common lab tests in the medical field. With the help of ultrasound exams, deeper imaging is possible with ultrasound as compared to X-rays, without any harmful health concerns.

Even though everyone has a vague idea of ultrasound medical imaging, not many people know its uses. Ultrasound machines have a vast application in almost every medical department.

In this article, we will discuss the applications and uses of ultrasound machines in medical science.

Overview of the Ultrasound Technology

Overview of the Ultrasound Technology

Ultrasound technology has its basis in ultrasound waves. Ultrasound waves refer to sound waves with a higher frequency than human hearing. This is why people cannot hear ultrasound waves, even though these are a type of sound waves. The frequency of these waves is greater than 20,000 Hz.

In ultrasound imaging, high-frequency sound waves of various frequencies are focussed on a particular body part. The change in the wave frequency as it travels through different densities of materials in the body helps form the image.

The frequency used in the imaging technology is determined by the part on which the ultrasound will be done. For the ultrasound technique, electrical pulses are used, which are generated with a transmitter pulse generator. The piezoelectric transducer then converts these electrical pulses to vibrations that create the ultrasound waves.

Application and Uses of Ultrasound in Medicine

Here is a detailed breakdown of the use cases of ultrasound scanning in medicine:

Abdominal

  • An ultrasound device is a go-to equipment for diagnosing the cause of any abdominal pain or discomfort. An ultrasound scan can immediately point toward the soft tissues in the abdomen that are not functioning correctly.

Nephrology

  • Ultrasound scanning is the only technology applied to detect the presence of kidney stones. It can even detect the number and size of each stone in real-time.
  • Ultrasonic waves can not only detect kidney stones but also break the stones. This process is known as lithotripsy. With lithotripsy, large kidney stones are broken into smaller fragments with pulses of ultrasound. The smaller fragments can easily pass through the urinary tract. The device used for this purpose is called a renal lithotriptor.

Musculoskeletal

  • Ultrasound exams allow doctors to see the blood vessels, muscles, and joints inside the body. This helps investigate muscle pulls, tears, nerve problems, and ailments such as arthritis. Another common issue that ultrasound helps in detecting is osteoporosis.
  • Ultrasound also applies in the treatment of soft tissue ailments, bursitis, collagen diseases, and soft tissue injuries. By decreasing pain and reducing the stiffness of the soft tissue, ultrasound technology aims to reduce the time taken to heal.

Cancer

  • With the help of ultrasound, doctors can detect tumors in the patient examination that are not visible on other medical imaging technologies. Ultrasound beams are used to guide the fine needle during the biopsy process. The biopsy is then called ultrasound-guided biopsies.
  • One of the extensive applications of ultrasonic waves is for breast examination and the study of breast cancer. Ultrasounds help detect the lumps in the breast and guide the needle in taking the sample of this lump for further analysis.
  • There is ongoing development in the use of ultrasonic hyperthermia for treating cancer. Ultrasonic hyperthermia increases the temperature of the target area above a particular temperature. At this high temperature, the malignancy of cancer is expected to halt.

Surgery

  • In surgical applications, a high-energy ultrasound is used to destroy tissue intentionally. In some surgical cases, a specialized ultrasound setup has multiple piezoelectric transducer, all focused on the site tissue while avoiding any intervening tissue.
  • Ultrasound helps in the surgical treatment of Parkinson’s disease by the ablation of substantia nigra.

Urology

  • Ultrasound is utilized in examining the urinary tract for any birth defects. It can also detect urinary tract infections and problems with voiding.
  • Many dedicated types of equipment have been developed utilizing ultrasound technology. These are very successful in the treatment of Meniere’s disease. Meniere’s disease causes improper inner ear functioning and makes the patient feel vertigo.
    Conventional surgery has a high-risk factor of deafness when treating Meniere’s disease. Meniere’s disease eliminates this risk, stops vertigo, and decreases the risk of facial nerve paralysis.

Gynecology

Gynecology

  • Ultrasound is widely used in gynecology and is called gynecologic ultrasonography in these cases. In gynecology, ultrasound studies the female pelvic organs, mainly the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, bladder, adnexa, and the recto-uterine pouch.
  • It can detect the inflammation of the appendix, known as appendicitis. It also detects and evaluates other gynecological problems such as endometriosis, ovary cysts, lesions, and more. It can also discover gynecological cancer.

Ophthalmology

  • Ultrasounds are utilized for treating cataracts in the eye surgically. For this purpose, a tool based on ultrasound waves is called a phacoemulsifier. Phacoemulsifier uses a needle vibrating at an ultrasonic frequency. The high energy released by the vibrations acts as an emulsifier for the dead lens. Phacoemulsifier also contains a suction chamber that removes the debris created in the process. Phacoemulsifiers provide a faster surgery time for cataracts, as well as a faster recovery period.

Anesthesiology

  • Intensive Care Ultrasound is used while administering anesthesia to study the blood flow. In transesophageal echocardiography (TEE). For cases with difficult anatomy, it is used to determine the depth of epidural space.

Endocrine

Endocrine

  • Ultrasound is used to analyze the thyroid and parathyroid glands for any abnormalities, such as thyroiditis. 3D images formed by the ultrasonic beam provide clear dimensions of these glands so any swelling can be noted.

Gastroenterology

  • In gastroenterology, an endoscopic ultrasound helps in the diagnosis of problems with the digestive tract and nearby soft tissues and organs. Evaluating the digestive organs and the diseases in them does not require any incisions when endoscopic ultrasound is used. This makes it a minimally invasive procedure.

Obstetrics and Pregnancy

  • Obstetrics is one of the most common applications of ultrasound. In fact, it is one of the primary reasons that ultrasound imaging is familiar as a patient examination technique for everyone in the masses.
  • In the patient examination during pregnancy, ultrasound provides a high quality image of the embryo or the fetus in real-time. This type of ultrasound is also called fetal ultrasound. Since X-rays are highly dangerous for the fetus, fetal ultrasounds provide a safer way to an examination of pregnancy.
  • It is recommended to conduct the fetal ultrasound within 18 to 22 weeks of gestation. During this period, it can detect any abnormalities in the growth or any other problems associated with the pregnancy.
  • Due to the wide application and requirement in obstetrics, many different types of obstetrics sonograms have developed. Some of the common ones are 3D sonography which creates a 3D visual of the fetus and doppler ultrasound which enables to hear the heartbeat of the child.

Vascular

  • Ultrasound used for vascular patient examination helps in evaluating the jet of blood flow and the blood vessels. In cerebrovascular examination, ultrasound can even measure the velocity of blood flow in the brain.
  • Carotid ultrasound detects any arteries that are blocked or narrowed. This helps in detecting the possibility of a stroke before any mishap.

Pulmonology

  • Pulmonary ultrasound is used to study the thoracic diseases. In emergency departments, pulmonary ultrasounds monitor respiratory diseases too.
  • For imaging lungs, using ultrasound can be a little challenging. This is because ultrasounds work on the passage of sound waves. In the case of the lungs, there are air pockets that alter the behavior of sound waves and hinder the formation of optimal imaging.

Cardiology

Cardiology

  • The use of cardiac ultrasound for studying the heart is called echocardiography. The image formed is called an echocardiogram, echo, or cardiac echo. It uses a standard ultrasound or a doppler ultrasound.
  • With a cardiac ultrasound, it is possible to diagnose any heart disease in a patient. For patients already suffering from heart diseases, the echocardiogram helps monitor and follow up.
  • The information provided by a cardiac ultrasound is extensive, so much that this is usually the sole imaging test required for an in-depth study of the patient’s heart. It provides details about the size of heart, its shape, any possible tissue damage with its location and size of damage, pumping capacity, and a lot more.
  • With a cardiac ultrasound, doctors can diagnose myocardial infarction at an early stage and see the regional wall motion abnormality. For patients with heart failure, ultrasound is one of the most important tools used in the treatment.
  • An echocardiogram can also diagnose cardiomyopathy. It is commonly used in the patient examination for dilated cardiomyopathy and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Doctors also use echocardiography to find out if heart diseases are the cause of chest pain in a patient.
  • For performing echocardiography, the technicians require training in the same. Such technicians are called echo sonographers or cardiac physiologists.

Mammography

  • Typically, X-rays are used to screen for breast cancer in the patient examination of women. This type of X-ray imaging is called mammography. However, the high radiation of X-rays causes a health concern for women, especially during pregnancy.
  • Breast ultrasounds provide a better and safer way to examine breasts for unusual masses that could be cancerous. These are becoming the common method for examination of breasts in case the patient needs to avoid X-rays.
  • In case a biopsy of the breasts is required, breast ultrasound serves as a guiding tool for the probe to remove the portion of the soft tissue. Biopsy of the breast is almost always ultrasound-guided biopsies.

 Veterinary

  • Ultrasound is not just limited to the science of human anatomy. Veterinary medicine also utilizes ultrasounds in a similar way to human medicine.
  • Since ultrasounds are a non-invasive imaging technique, it helps in saving the animal from undue stress caused by conventional surgeries. For many animals, surgical distress can cause further ailments.
  • It is common for household pets to ingest foreign objects. With the help of an ultrasound, the vet can detect the type of object that a pet has swallowed and the danger level that the object will pose. Based on this information, the vet can make the decision on the course of action.
  • It is applied to monitor the high level of liver enzymes, which can be a common problem in many animals. Other detectable ailments are urinary tract infections, digestive disorders, neoplasia, trauma, endocrine disorders, and investigating fever of unknown origin.
  • Using ultrasound, fluid from soft pieces of tissue can be distinguished from any foreign objects. This distinction cannot be made in alternatives such as X-rays.
  • For animal gestation, vets can determine the number of offspring with an ultrasound. The development of fetuses can be studied during the entire gestation period.

Advanced Application

  • Due to the benefits of ultrasound imaging without any risks or incisions, many advanced applications of ultrasound have been developed using sophisticated devices.
  • One of these developments is High Intensity Focussed Ultrasound (HIFU). HIFU provides biological effects such as local tissue heating, radiation forces, and cavitation. This opens new possibilities in applications such as tissue ablation, local drug delivery, immune response stimulation, and radiation therapy sensitization.
  • The ultrasound device requires high spatial precision for these advanced treatments. This is achieved by using specialized ultrasonic transducers. These transducers can focus the ultrasound waves on a very small area as low as 1 mm in diameter.
  • High Intensity Focussed Ultrasound can also treat uterine fibroids and essential tremors. Pain relief benefits of this technology are also finding applications along with research for new possibilities.
  • The use of HIFU for treating prostate cancer is also under development. In this technology, a HIFU transducer is placed in the rectum or the urethra.
  • For the purpose of drug delivery, an ultrasound based technique called sonoporation is gaining popularity. This technology utilizes microbubble enhanced ultrasound waves. The drug itself is trapped within the microbubble core. In some cases, there is an indirect drug delivery where the microbubble and the drug are coadministered. In all of these cases, the ultrasound helps in guiding drug directly to the pathological site.

What Are the Limitations of Ultrasound?

What Are the Limitations of Ultrasound in Medicine

While there are countless benefits of implementing ultrasound in all the medical applications mentioned above and no negative biological effects, there are also some limitations to the process.

  • The performance of ultrasound waves is unsatisfactory in air. Therefore, it cannot be applied to examine any tissues or organs filled with gas (including air). This is a major reason that ultrasound is not a popular method for examining lungs and X-rays are used instead despite their harmful effects.
  • It isn’t possible to use ultrasound in diagnostic applications to detect microcalcifications. These microcalcifications are one of the early symptoms of breast cancer. These can be detected with  X-ray mammography. Therefore, mammography is a more common screening tool for breast cancer than a breast ultrasound.
  • Ultrasound does not work well for clinical applications on obese individuals. The deep tissues cannot be seen with clear visibility in these cases. Even if ultrasound is possible for deep tissues, the image quality is very poor.
  • The performance of ultrasound and the quality of 3D images is highly dependent on the operator’s skill. For a good quality image, it requires proper application of the water based gel and a few other prerequisites that can vary based on the process. For instance, an abdominal ultrasound requires a full bladder to provide good 3D image quality of the bladder and detecting stones.

Conclusion

The lack of harmful effects of ultrasound combined with high image quality makes it one of the best options for medical diagnosis.

The process is simple and non-invasive, making it preferable for patients as well as doctors. The adverse events of X-rays, such as cancer, have led researchers to utilize ultrasound in almost all applications of X-rays.

Even though ultrasound imaging has been prevalent for decades, new and new breakthroughs of the technology are still being discovered. The evolution is not only increasing the possible quality of the 3D images but also what can be done with the ultrasound control pulses.

Despite a few limitations of ultrasound mentioned above, it is still one of the best and the safest imaging technology in medical science.