Diagnosing athletic injuries without the use of medical resonance imaging

If you have ever dealt with muscle or joint pain, you know how tricky it can be to diagnose the problem. Tears and inflammation are the usual suspects, but the ligament or bone mass where the pain originates may be hidden under layers of tissue. The best way to diagnose those issues is with a musculoskeletal ultrasound.

“A musculoskeletal ultrasound can be used to diagnose sprains, strains, tears, and other soft tissue conditions,” said Geisinger fellowship trained family and sports medicine physician, Dr. Aaron Dawes. “Many patients prefer an ultrasound because they don’t have to lay motionless in an MRI chamber to have a clear picture of their injury.”

The procedure is also a favorite among sports medicine practitioners for its effectiveness; musculoskeletal ultrasounds provide a clear picture of many sports injuries, as well as nerve and tendon conditions that can be difficult to capture in other tests.

In addition to sprains, strains and tears, a musculoskeletal ultrasound can confirm the presence of tendonitis, heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, cysts or impingement syndrome, where connective tissue rubs painfully against the bone.

Though this method won’t show an adult’s bones like an x-ray would, it does show the site where ligaments and joints connect, which can be very helpful when diagnosing failing joints.

“It can also be used to screen for conditions like carpal tunnel, where there are several layers of tissue obscuring a pinched nerve,” Dawes said.

A musculoskeletal ultrasound does not require any radiation or magnets, making it safe for all patients and impact-free for those with long-term health concerns. It also produces imagery in real-time, reducing patient wait time.

You’re probably familiar with prenatal ultrasounds, a common way for expectant mothers to check the development of their unborn baby using high-frequency sound waves. A musculoskeletal ultrasound isn’t much different; it uses these high-frequency waves to survey soft tissue.

The machine is a kiosk with an attached handheld device called a transducer that is moved over the affected area to scan for abnormalities. That instrument often looks like a microphone, but there are different models depending on the preferred frequency and image type.

“Your doctor may ask you to move the affected arm or leg throughout the exam because it gives them the opportunity to see the tissue in both relaxed and stretched positions,” Dawes said.

This is what separates a dynamic test like the ultrasound from an MRI: an MRI will take a static image of one part of the body, while the ultrasound can follow a muscle from end to end.

If your doctor chooses to move forward with a musculoskeletal ultrasound, there is virtually no preparation needed.

Patients with metal implants or pacemakers are eligible for ultrasounds, but should remind their practitioner about these conditions before getting started. You may want to leave your jewelry at home and wear loose clothing, but there are no dietary or movement restrictions.

Most patients do not feel any discomfort while receiving the ultrasound, and no needles or shots are necessary to begin.


This is one in a continuing series of articles on sports and medicine provided by Geisinger.