The Future of Ultrasound

In our ever-changing world, research and technology strive to keep us ahead of disease and sickness. Ultrasound, one of the most innovative and useful diagnostic tools in a Physician’s arsenal, continues to evolve. There are many new and exciting developments in the field of Ultrasound.

A recent development brings us high-resolution portable ultrasound scanners. These devices are ideal for use in hospital emergency rooms where every second counts. If a patient arrives complaining of abdominal pain, and is bleeding within the abdomen, time lost during diagnosis can cost that patient’s life. The new portable high-resolution ultrasound scanners allow for quick diagnosis of a critical patient. These small devices, weighing little more than five pounds, start up quickly (within 15 seconds) and provide Emergency Department Physicians the ability to, in essence, ‘see’ within a patient’s body. Critical diagnosis, such as abdominal bleeding, collapsed lungs or blood clots, is then made, thus saving the patient’s life. These portable ultrasound devices, used by trained clinicians, boast a high degree of accuracy and can identify over forty medical conditions within a two minute period.

Another device that is changing healthcare is the introduction of portable ultrasound devices in mobile technology.  Small, about the size of a deck of cards, these devices allow Cardiologists to look directly into a patient’s heart, giving them the ability to view a patient’s heart muscles, valves and even blood flow. This technology is amazing, coming from a device as small as a cell phone. While traditionally stethoscopes will always provide Cardiologists the ability to hear heart sounds (a critical step in diagnosis) these new ultrasound devices provide an invaluable diagnostic tool that is immediately at hand.

Transducer probes are the hand held devices used during ultrasound procedures that transmit high frequency sound waves, first into the body and then bouncing back from the patient. These transducer probes currently come in several shapes and sizes, from microphone-shaped transducers used on the surface of a patient’s abdomen to smaller, thinner transducers used as internal probes. As these probes continue to evolve, the future may bring smaller internal probes, more comfortable for patients. They may also become more developed and powerful, in order to obtain higher quality images of a patient’s internal organs.

One innovative area of research may soon be able to restore sight to those that cannot see. The new Ultrasound technology is similar to echolocation, or biosonar, used by dolphins, whales, shrews and bats. These animals produce calls, which are sent out into the environment and then returned. These echoes provide the animal the ability to pinpoint range, its location, even identify objects. This allows them to navigate and forage or hunt.

Using the same principles as echolocation, pulses of varying acoustic waves are directed at cells in a patient’s eyes. These acoustic waves may improve vision for certain types of blindness. Scientists believe artificial vision may be obtained from retinal (tissue lining that lines the eyes) prosthetics. Light (environmental) would be collected by a digital video camera. This camera would be mounted onto the patient’s glasses. The digital camera would translate images (what the patient would normally see) into ultrasonic patterns that would then be directed through their pupil (s).

While this technology may not be appropriate for all causes of blindness, patients suffering from some diseases (such as those that cause the retinal nerves to die off) could greatly benefit from this technology, which uses sound  to increase cell activity and change how the tissues functions. For patients who are blind due to retinal nerve damage, this technology can augment, or improve, the remaining cells in the patient’s eyes.

Already used in Europe, a new method of reducing waist fat has been approved by the FDA for use in the United States. Using High Intensity Focused Ultrasound, fat cells that lie beneath the surface of the skin are eradicated by the focused ultrasound. This technology appears to be less risky than liposuction. Studies show the procedure removes around one inch from the waistline.

Through its powerful diagnostic capabilities, Ultrasound technology saves lives. The future of Ultrasound will continue to bring new innovations and exciting discoveries.

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