Serious or recurrent pain in the body often calls for outside help to find relief. When you visit your physical therapist, you may see a variety of machines and equipment used to improve painful conditions. Though each machine may use unique technology, they have all been created to help patients feel better. We did some research on three popular pieces of equipment you may come across at the PT office. Here’s how they work!
Frequently Used Physical Therapy Equipment
Ultrasound therapy is a treatment modality commonly used by physical therapists to treat painful conditions and encourage tissue healing. Though ultrasound therapy is not recommended for all pain it is often used for those experiencing osteoarthritis, plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, sprains or strains. How does it work? High-energy sound waves or pulses penetrate the tissue and continuous sound waves from the machine can cause deep vibrations within the deep tissue. These waves of sound can help lessen swelling and reduce pain in an area that is usually worked on for about 5-10 minutes per treatment. During the treatment, a hand-held transducer may be applied with a gel and moved in a circular motion over the painful area. Though the level of clinical benefits the patient can receive are uncertain, it is known that ultrasound therapy can provide heat to the body, and heat can work wonders on pain.
Muscle stimulation machines are also a treatment modality used by physical therapists to send electrical impulses to the body, making the muscles contract.
Your physical therapist may offer Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) during your visit. An EMS machine can help cause muscles to contract for rehabilitation, strengthening, relaxing the muscles, increasing blood circulation to an area and even preventing muscle atrophy due to disuse.
A TENS machine can assist with relief from chronic and acute pain such as arthritis, back pain, foot pain, multiple sclerosis, sciatica and carpal tunnel syndrome. Not sure which is best for the pain you are experiencing? Consult with your physical therapist to create a plan that works for your body, there are machines that combine both EMS and TENS technology as well.
Infrared heat has been utilized as a healing tool for centuries and Dr. Aaron Flickstein, FIT Bodywrap’s Clinical Director has used infrared therapy in his practice for years, “Infrared speeds up injury healing by as much as 3 weeks,” he says. “Infrared therapy can decrease joint stiffness directly which means it can be used successfully in helping joints to move more freely. It can work just as well with recently traumatized or chronically injured joints.”
Physical therapists may also use infrared as a treatment modality to relieve muscle spasms and bring down swelling or inflammation. “Muscle spasms have long been observed to lessen using heat, even when the spasms are secondary to underlying skeletal, joint or neuropathological conditions,” explains Flickstein. “Infrared heat can be used to reset the nerves of the sensory system found within all muscles and tendons. It can also help tone down the muscle spasms which can bring relief.” For those whose main concern is inflammation Dr. Flickstein says infrared can help in three ways.
- The rise in core body temperature can trigger a response in the control center the brain uses to coordinate many automatic housekeeping jobs at once.
- Infrared immersion can help your brain to relax tense vessels. Heat one arm or leg, and the other side of the body also dilates; heat a forearm and both lower legs will dilate; heat the front of the trunk and the hand will dilate. Infrared therapy can engage parts of the body directly and bring more blood flow into the rest of your body indirectly.
- Heating injured muscles can produce an increased blood flow level like that seen during exercise. Infrared saturation can provide a doubling of the blood flow rate in your core, organs, arms and legs (i.e. the periphery).
Time to review!
Dr. Flickstein’s top 5 ways infrared heat can improve physical therapy sessions:
- Relaxing muscle spasms.
- Quickly draining overly tensed muscles of inflammation.
- Directly calming pain receptors and nerves.
- Increasing production of our own side-effect free opioids (i.e. endorphins).
- Shutting down the so-called "spinal gate," which can reduce pain as stated in the Melzack and Wall Gate Theory of Pain.
Overall, infrared can help rapidly reduce swelling by quickly eliminating inflammation, and decreasing swelling related pain. Regardless of the type of injury, infrared can speed up recovery.
Your physical therapist may use a combination of the above-listed equipment to improve your condition. They may also suggest stretching, strengthening exercises and other modalities. If you are unsure if the above-listed options are recommended for you and the pain you are experiencing it is best to consult with your doctor or physical therapist.
- Douglas Miller, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine Bioeffects Committee. "Overview Of Therapeutic Ultrasound Applications And Safety Considerations". PubMed Central (PMC), 2013. Web.
- Danette C. Taylor, FACN. "Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation: Side Effects". MedicineNet. N.p. Web.
- Wikipedia (2016) Electrical muscle stimulation. Web.
- "Simple TENS Vs EMS: Understand The Differences (Quickly)". The Good Body. 2016. Web.