Advancing Care in Physiatry: The Value of Neuromuscular Ultrasound

Neuromuscular ultrasound offers many benefits for physiatrist and physical medicine

Physiatrists, also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physicians, typically deal with a broad spectrum of musculoskeletal conditions and concentrate on improving health through non-surgical means.  These clinicians must be able to diagnose and treat musculoskeletal problems that are caused by injury, illness, chronic overuse, and disabling conditions.


Because physiatrists address a wide variety of health challenges (among patients of all ages), they are often the first to seek out the most advanced technologies to help improve health outcomes. As a result, neuromuscular ultrasound is fast becoming a must-have technology for physicians focused on physical medicine and rehabilitation.


Neuromuscular ultrasound, often called musculoskeletal ultrasound within physiatry practices, provides real-time, high-resolution visualization of muscles, nerves, and other soft tissues. For musculoskeletal medicine, this cost-effective technology offers unique insights that can lead to faster, more accurate diagnostics, better-informed treatment plans, and more discerning progress monitoring.

With the technology available today, neuromuscular ultrasound should be considered as important as EMG and NCS for musculoskeletal medicine.

Jeffrey Strakowski, MD.

Clinical Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Ohio State University School of Medicine

Benefits of Neuromuscular Ultrasound for Physiatry

Musculoskeletal ultrasound offers high-resolution, dynamic imaging of muscle architecture and tissue changes due to disease progression and injuries or during treatment and rehabilitation. Unless the structure being visualized is obscured or inside the bone, many musculoskeletal system pathologies can be visualized more clearly with ultrasound due to much higher-resolution images.   The technology offers many other benefits for physiatrists, including:

  • Real-time, high-resolution imaging. Neuromuscular ultrasound provides a valuable complement to electromyography (EMG) and Nerve Conduction Studies (NCS). By providing real-time, high-resolution images of muscles, nerves, and their interactions, neuromuscular ultrasound often helps identify the root cause of patient symptoms.
  • Non-invasive testing. With neuromuscular ultrasound, diagnostics and evaluations are performed in a non-invasive, radiation-free manner. This provides a safe and comfortable environment for patients of any age, including babies and the elderly. It is also an alternative for patients unsuited for MRI, such as people with metal implants and pacemakers, pregnant people, and those with claustrophobia.
  • Point-of-Care technology. Ultrasound technology can be deployed in various settings, making diagnosis accessible and readily available, both at the bedside and in remote or non-clinical environments. Physiatrists using handheld neuromuscular ultrasound devices can diagnose and prepare treatment plans for musculoskeletal problems accurately and efficiently, even when a full spectrum of EMG or NCS testing is unavailable. Advanced neuromuscular ultrasound tools often fit in the doctor’s coat pocket and can be used independently or alongside an EMG device.
  • Cost-effectiveness. In addition to becoming increasingly portable over the last few years, neuromuscular ultrasound technology is also cost-effective, increasing diagnostic accuracy and improving the clinician’s ability to monitor treatment progress. Research shows that the technology generates significant savings, especially when incorporated earlier or more frequently. Research also provides increasing evidence of the efficiency and cost-benefits of using point-of-care ultrasonography within emergency departments. In addition, a survey of members of the American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons (ASES) demonstrated that as an alternative to MRI, diagnostic ultrasound used for rotator cuff tears can significantly enhance the value of care provided by orthopedic surgeons.


Diagnostic Benefits of Neuromuscular Ultrasound


he diagnostic benefits of using this technology extend to several clinical applications, including assessing muscle involvement in diseases, distinguishing between benign and malignant tissues, enabling sonopalpation, and facilitating simultaneous comparisons of multiple regions.

  • Dynamic evaluation is a hallmark of musculoskeletal ultrasound, allowing physiatrists to visualize musculoskeletal structures in motion. This capability is particularly advantageous for assessing conditions affected by movement, such as tendon injuries, joint instability, and muscle tears. By capturing real-time images, ultrasound technology lets clinicians observe dynamic changes, pinpoint injury mechanisms, and tailor treatment strategies accordingly.
  • Advantages for muscle architecture assessment are inherent to this ultrasound technology, as it provides detailed visualization of muscle morphology and function. Clinicians can assess muscle thickness, echogenicity, and fascicular architecture, crucial indicators of muscle health and pathology. This information aids in diagnosing and monitoring conditions such as muscle atrophy, myopathy, and neuromuscular disorders.
  • Neuromuscular ultrasound is particularly valuable for detecting changes in muscle involvement associated with various diseases. In conditions such as inflammatory myopathies, neuromuscular junction disorders, and motor neuron diseases, the tools can reveal characteristic patterns of muscle involvement, including atrophy, fatty infiltration, and fibrosis.
  • Sonalpapitation, or combining ultrasound imaging with palpation, enhances diagnostic accuracy and procedural precision. Clinicians can correlate ultrasound findings with tactile feedback, thereby improving the localization of abnormalities and guiding needle placement during aspirations, injections, and biopsies. Sonalpapitation is particularly valuable in deep-seated or anatomically complex regions where palpation alone may be insufficient for accurate localization.


Applications of Neuromuscular Ultrasound for Musculoskeletal Medicine

For physiatrists, in particular, neuromuscular ultrasound offers valuable insights and aids in managing various conditions, including sports injuries and chronic pain. For example, musculoskeletal ultrasound is crucial in sports medicine, where it helps evaluate soft tissue injuries, such as muscle strains, ligament sprains, and tendon tears. Its real-time imaging capabilities allow for precise localization of the injury site, assessment of severity, and monitoring of the healing progress. As a result, physiatrists can use this information to tailor rehabilitation programs in real-time, guiding athletes through targeted exercises and therapies to promote recovery and prevent re-injury.


By visualizing nerves and surrounding structures, clinicians can use neuromuscular ultrasound to identify potential sources of chronic pain, such as entrapment syndromes or nerve compression. This diagnostic clarity enables physiatrists to devise comprehensive treatment plans and more effectively incorporate modalities like nerve blocks, ultrasound-guided injections, and physical therapy to alleviate pain and improve function.


It facilitates precise needle placement during interventions, enhancing the efficacy of procedures like epidural steroid injections or peripheral nerve blocks. Neuromuscular ultrasound provides real-time visualization, allowing physiatrists to target specific anatomical structures accurately while minimizing risk to surrounding tissues. This approach enhances procedural safety and efficacy, improving patient satisfaction and functional outcomes.



 Brief Comparison to Other Imaging Technologies

Neuromuscular ultrasound offers distinct advantages over other imaging technologies in the evaluation of musculoskeletal conditions:

  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): While MRI provides excellent soft tissue contrast and multiplanar imaging capabilities, it is less accessible, expensive, and typically does not provide dynamic imaging.
  • CT (Computed Tomography): CT imaging helps assess bone structures and detect fractures and bone pathology. However, it involves radiation exposure and does not provide the same level of soft tissue detail.
  • X-ray: Musculoskeletal ultrasound offers real-time imaging of soft tissues, enabling visualization of muscle architecture, tendon integrity, and nerve involvement, which may not be apparent on X-ray.
  • Ultrasound: Conventional ultrasound does not offer specialized probes and higher-frequency transducers optimized for imaging musculoskeletal structures.

Once a clinician understands what they can actually see using neuromuscular ultrasound, and the affordability of the devices, it becomes a must-have for their practice.

Jeffrey A. Strakowski, MD.

Clinical Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Ohio State University School of Medicine

Neuromuscular Ultrasound as a Standard of Care for Physiatry

Neuromuscular ultrasound stands out for its accessibility, real-time imaging capabilities, high resolution, and ability to assess dynamic changes in musculoskeletal structures, making it a valuable tool for diagnosing and managing various conditions in physiatry and sports medicine. Physiatrists are uniquely positioned to incorporate these tools to address the multifaceted nature of conditions like sports injuries and chronic pain, focusing on symptom management, restoring function, and enhancing overall well-being.


By strategically integrating neuromuscular ultrasound into their practice, physiatrists can offer patients personalized and evidence-based care that maximizes outcomes in a cost-effective and safe manner.  Neuromuscular, or musculoskeletal ultrasound, is an invaluable adjunct to any physiatry practice, empowering physicians to deliver comprehensive, patient-centered care across a spectrum of musculoskeletal conditions.


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