Background and purpose: Therapeutic ultrasound is one of the most widely and frequently used electrophysical agents. Despite over 60 years of clinical use, the effectiveness of ultrasound for treating people with pain, musculoskeletal injuries, and soft tissue lesions remains questionable. This article presents a systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in which ultrasound was used to treat people with those conditions. Each trial was designed to investigate the contributions of active and placebo ultrasound to the patient outcomes measured. Depending on the condition, ultrasound (active and placebo) was used alone or in conjunction with other interventions in a manner designed to identify its contribution and distinguish it from those of other interventions.
Methods: Thirty-five English-language RCTs were published between 1975 and 1999. Each RCT identified was scrutinized for patient outcomes and methodological adequacy.
Results: Ten of the 35 RCTs were judged to have acceptable methods using criteria based on those developed by Sackett et al. Of these RCTs, the results of 2 trials suggest that therapeutic ultrasound is more effective in treating some clinical problems (carpal tunnel syndrome and calcific tendinitis of the shoulder) than placebo ultrasound, and the results of 8 trials suggest that it is not.
Discussion and conclusion: There was little evidence that active therapeutic ultrasound is more effective than placebo ultrasound for treating people with pain or a range of musculoskeletal injuries or for promoting soft tissue healing. The few studies deemed to have adequate methods examined a wide range of patient problems. The dosages used in these studies varied considerably, often for no discernable reason.