Ultrasound imaging is being used more frequently in the physical therapy clinical setting. Physical therapists are using ultrasound (US) imaging in varying ways. Some are using it as a training tool for the patient to learn neuromuscular control. Others are using it to guide needle placement while performing dry needling. In a recent article authored by several well-known physiotherapists, the various uses of US imaging were defined, as well as discussions regarding the scope of practice, and training for physiotherapists using ultrasound imaging.
Four uses of US imaging have been reported by physical therapists. The first and most common use of US imaging is the evaluation of muscle structure and function to aid in neuromuscular control. Essentially, the US images are being used as a source of biofeedback. This has been coined Rehabilitative Ultrasound Imaging (RUSI). Additional uses have emerged in recent years including Diagnostic US imaging which is the diagnosis and monitoring of pathology; and interventional US imaging which is using the US images to guide percutaneous procedures involving dry or wet needling. These three categories are performed during clinical care and fall under the umbrella term “point of care ultrasound.” The last category of US imaging use in physical therapy is paired with performing research.
In this article, some thoughts and areas for improvement were brought to light regarding each type of US imaging as well as the scope of practice and training for each type of US use. It was mentioned that RUSI sits almost entirely within the scope of the physical therapy profession, however, it can be difficult for therapists to receive training for this use. Therapists interested in learning diagnostic or interventional US imaging have more options for training because these uses of US have established criteria for training, competence, and regulation outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as oversight from the World Federation for Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology. These programs often are intended for other healthcare practitioners (radiologists, and sonographers), but physical therapists are able to take the courses. However, it was stated that both diagnostic and interventional US imaging do not fall within the scope of practice for a majority of physical therapists around the world. So, although training may be more available for these types of US use; therapists taking these courses gain increased experience with non-physical therapy applications, and therefore are at risk for operating outside the scope of their practice.
The authors continued with distinct recommendations for needed training for the four different types of US imaging. Several of the listed skills were fundamental knowledge that a therapist should obtain before utilizing any of the four types of US into their practice such as basic physics for US, terminology, safety, among other knowledge. Then there were skills that were specific to the particular type of US being performed. Since point-of-care use of US is generally not included as part of entry level physical therapy education programs, this knowledge needs to be obtained in a postgraduate education format. For therapists who wish to learn diagnostic application of US imaging, there are multiple courses available from schools that train sonographers. However, according to this article, the form of US imaging that sits more within the scope of practice for physical therapists, rehabilitative ultrasound imaging, does not have as many educational opportunities as diagnostic US imaging does.
Herman & Wallace offers a course that provides fundamental skills of US imaging (such as history, and knowledge of the physics needed for US imaging), as well as specific skills for real-time ultrasound imaging. The schedule of the course includes a lot of lab time with multiple US units available so the ratio of participant to US unit low. You will leave the course being able to interpret US images and use it as an assessment tool or biofeedback tool for the patient. Using RUSI will change how you treat patients! The Rehabilitative Ultrasound Imaging course is offered three more times this year. Join me in Columbia, MO this August; Madison, WI in September; or Chicago, IL in December to learn how to use this form of ultrasound imaging in your clinical practice!
Whittaker J, Ellis R, Hodges P, et al. Imaging with ultrasound in physical therapy: what is the PT’s scope of practice a competency-based educational model and training recommendations. Br. J Sports Med. Apr. 2019; 0:1-7.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog about an interesting article by Hides and Stanton that related size and strength of the multifidus to the risk for lower extremity injury in Australian professional football players.
Now some of the same researchers are looking above. A prospective cohort study has recently been published that examined factors and their effects on concussions. Physical measurements of risk factors were taken in pre-season among Australian football players. These measurements included balance, vestibular function, and spinal control. To measure these outcomes the following tests were included: for balance the amount of sway across six test conditions were performed; vestibular function was tested with assessments of ocular-motor and vestibular ocular reflex; and for spinal control cervical joint position error, multifidus size, and contraction ability was tested. The objective measure was concussion injury obtained during the season diagnosed by the medical staff.
The findings were so interesting! Age, height, weight, and number of years playing football were not associated with concussion. Cross-sectional area of the multifidus at L5 was 10% smaller in players who went on to sustain a concussion compared to players that did not receive a concussion. There were no significant differences observed between the players that received concussion and those who did not with respect to the other physical measures that were obtained.
With all the recent evidence about the harmful effects of concussions amongst our athletes, I find this information amazing and am excited to see where the researchers take this in the future. The next question for the physical therapist is how do we train the multifidus? The multifidus can be difficult to retrain in some individuals. It is a hard muscle for some patients to learn to recruit. Biofeedback using ultrasound imaging can make this daunting task easier for many patients. With the cost of ultrasound units coming down, it is also a very reasonable tool for clinics to look at investing in.
Join me to learn more about the multifidus and how to use ultrasound imaging in the retraining process. Future course offerings include August in New Jersey, and November in San Diego. I look forward to seeing you there!
Hides, Stanton. Can motor control training lower the risk of injury for professional football players? Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014; 46(4): 762-8.
Leung, Hides, Franettovich Smith, et al. Spinal control is related to concussion in professional footballers. Brit J of Sports Med. 2017; 51(11).
Allison Ariail, PT, DPT, CLT-LANA, BCB-PMD, PRPC is a published researcher and practitioner who has worked in the realms of brain injury, lymphedema, and oncology. Now she's leading the charge to encourage rehabilitation practitioners to utilize ultrasound diagnostic imaging with their patients, and you can learn these techniques in her Rehabilitative Ultrasound Imaging - Women's Health and Orthopedic Topics course taking place May 1 - 3 in Dayton, OH. We've partnered with SonoSite to make the best ultrasound equipment available for participants in this course.
Most of us are treating patients who have back pain of some nature, and we know the importance of the local stabilizing muscles including the transverse abdominis, the lumbar multifidus, and the pelvic floor muscles. These muscles work together to provide tension and create a corset of stability throughout the trunk. A common goal is to rehabilitate these muscles in order to restore motor control and strength, but the muscle depth can make them difficult to assess and palpate.
I recently read a study that is looking at the development of a test to identify lumbar multifidus function. Herbert et al. found promising results when looking at this “multifidus lift test” for inter-rater reliability and concurrent validity to identify dysfunction in the multifidus. They compared the results of this test with real-time ultrasound imaging of the lumbar multifidus. Inter-rater reliability was excellent and free from errors of bias and prevalence. Concurrent validity was demonstrated through its relationship with the reference standard results at L4-L5, but not so much for L5-S1. This preliminary research supports the reliability and validity of the multifidus lift test to assess lumbar multifidus function at some spinal levels. If this test could be further validated for other spinal levels it would be very beneficial for therapists who are using a specific stabilization program to treat patients.
Until this test is further developed and validated how can therapists know for sure that their patient is truly activating their multifidus? Ultrasound imaging is the answer! Ultrasound imaging gives therapists real-time feedback for whether a patient is able to correctly activate a muscle or not. It is also a wonderful biofeedback tool for patients who are trying to rehabilitate these muscles. Getting your hands on an ultrasound machine can be tough, but therapists who work in a hospital system may have an easier time than you'd think. I have worked with many therapists to help them get access to ultrasound units through “hand me down” units from imaging or labor and delivery departments. I also have helped private practice therapists set up a working relationship with a physician who has an ultrasound in their office. Thinking outside of the box can allow clinicians to gain access to ultrasound units without having to spend a lot of money. Join me in Dayton Ohio this May to hear more about how ultrasound imaging can improve your practice and allow you to incorporate a specific stabilization program into your toolbox.
Herbert JJ, Koppenhaver SL, Teyhen DS, Walker BF, Fritz JM. The evaluation of lumbar multifidus muscle function via palpation: reliability and validity of a new clinical test. Spine J. 2015; 15(6): 1196-202.
One of the dilemmas for many clinicians new to pelvic rehab is trying to figure out which equipment to purchase, and how to convince their employer (or themselves) to purchase the equipment. A common question in relation to equipment for pelvic rehabilitation is “what do I really need?” In a perfect world, and based on both existing and emerging research as well as clinical practice recommendations, we would all have access to pressure biofeedback and real-time ultrasound to help us document and train our patients in best strategies. The truth, however, lies in the fact that when those devices are not available, clinical practice can gain meaningful information from our best tools: our eyes and our hands. Certainly when completing research about pelvic floor generated pressures we might choose pressure biofeedback, and when looking for muscle activation patterns, needle EMG is the right choice, but no one should deny patients the opportunity to learn how to increase or decrease muscle activity, focus on movement retraining, and learn strategies to decrease improve quality of life and function because the latest technology is unavailable.
Recent research published in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy helps affirm the value of vaginal palpation in an article that assessed the relationship between vaginal palpation, vaginal squeeze pressure, electromyography and ultrasound. Eighty women between the ages of 18 and 35 years old, who had never given birth, and who had no known pelvic floor dysfunction were given a thorough evaluation using a multitude of evaluative methods. These methods included vaginal digital palpation (using Modified Oxford scale), vaginal squeeze pressure, electromyographic activity, diameter of the bulbocavernosus muscles as well as bladder neck movement using transperineal ultrasound. The muscles were assessed in a supine, hooklying position. A strong and positive correlation was found between pelvic floor muscle function and pelvic floor muscle contraction pressure. A less strong correlation was found between pelvic muscle function and pressure and electromyography and ultrasound.
Vaginal pelvic muscle assessment via palpation has been shown to be more accurate when assessed by more experienced therapists, and use of multiple methods may be most valuable in gaining the most accurate data. In addition to validating the usefulness of pelvic muscle palpation as an evaluative tool, the authors point out that transperineal ultrasound may also be the most appropriate tool for pediatric patients or patients who are otherwise not appropriate for internal pelvic muscle assessment.
Pereira, V. S., Hirakawa, H. S., Oliveira, A. B., & Driusso, P. (2014). Relationship among vaginal palpation, vaginal squeeze pressure, electromyographic and ultrasonographic variables of female pelvic floor muscles. Brazilian journal of physical therapy, 18(5), 428-434.
Occasionally, as pelvic rehab providers, we will encounter the question from our patients, “Do vaginal weights help with urinary incontinence and pelvic floor performance?” The premise behind the use of vaginal cones or balls is that holding them actively in your vagina with your pelvic floor muscles helps to increase the performance (strength and endurance) of the pelvic floor muscles, assisting in reduction of urinary incontinence.
A recent systematic review (Midwifery, 2015) explores this topic for a specific population of post-partum women with urinary incontinence. The question to be answered was “Does the vaginal use of cones or balls by women in the post-partum period improve performance of the pelvic floor muscles and urinary continence, compared to no treatment, placebo, sham treatment or active controls?”. This review had extensive search criteria. The types of participants in the studies analyzed were post-partum women up to 1 year (when starting interventions) of any parity, that underwent any mode of birth or birth injuries, and had or did not have urinary incontinence. Exclusion criteria were pregnant women, anal incontinence, and major genitourinary/pelvic morbidity. Any frequency, intensity, duration of pelvic exercises with the devices, and any form, size, weight, or brand of vaginal balls or cones were considered. Participants could undergo any type of instruction, either from a health care provider, or self-taught from written materials.
Of the searched studies, all were randomized or quasi-randomized controlled trials. The primary outcomes of the searched studies were pelvic floor muscle performance (strength or endurance) and/or urinary incontinence, both assessed with a valid or reliable method. 37 potentially useful articles were reviewed out of 1324 based on the search criteria, but only one article met all of the inclusion criteria and was included in this review with 192 relevant participants (Wilson and Herbison).
In the included study, the group that used vaginal cones (compared to control group) showed a statistically significant lower rate of urinary incontinence. However, when compared to the pelvic exercises group, the continence rates were similar at 12 months post-partum between the cone group and the exercising group. At 24-44 months post-partum, continence rates amongst all groups were similar, but follow-up rates were very low.
As pelvic rehabilitation providers, it is our job to promote pelvic health and assist our post-partum patients with their pelvic impairments, providing them with options to meet their goals. This review does not make a scientific statement of a preferred mode of pelvic exercise, however, it gives us one more option to consider when teaching patients about how to improve pelvic muscle performance to increase urinary continence following child birth. Pelvic exercise enhances pelvic performance, so if your patient would prefer to use vaginal cones or balls to do their pelvic exercise versus completing pelvic exercises without them, do what works best for the patient. One can argue that any pelvic exercise is better than none in improving performance. The use of vaginal cones or balls may be helpful for urinary continence in post-partum women, and provides us with one tool more when promoting pelvic health in our patients.
Oblasser, C., Christie, J., & McCourt, C. (2015). Vaginal cones or balls to improve pelvic floor muscle performance and urinary continence in women post-partum: A quantitative systematic review. Midwifery, 31(11), 1017-1025.
Wilson, P. D., & Herbison, G. P. (1998). A randomized controlled trial of pelvic floor muscle exercises to treat postnatal urinary incontinence. International Urogynecology Journal, 9(5), 257-264.