Today we depend on ultrasound for everything from pregnancy scans to ultrasound therapy to treat injuries and provide pain relief for at least some of the 1.5 billion people around the world who suffer from chronic pain. The idea of ultrasound has been around since 1877 and ultrasound therapy has been a treatment for tissue damage since the 1940s. But we didn’t always have access to this useful technology.
The History of Ultrasound
- The early roots of sonography and piezoelectricity The ancient Greeks were the first to show a scientific interest in sonography, and Pythagoras invented a machine he called the Sonometer. It was used to study the sounds of music. Later Boethius realized the similarities between sound waves and water waves. These were early steps in the right direction, but the first real step towards today’s ultrasound therapy was made by Pierre Curie. (If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he was married to Maria Curie, the first women to win the Nobel Prize. She developed the theory of radioactivity, among other accomplishments.) Pierre Curie was also a physicist and a pioneer in his own right, including the discovery of the forerunner of ultrasound: piezoelectricity. His discoveries led to the development of the sonograph.
- A Titanic movement towards ultrasound The next two centuries saw many scientists working on devices that would allow them to see inside the human body in order to diagnose and treat disease. Ironically, it was the tragic sinking of the liner Titanic that caused a surge in interest in being able to detect objects underwater. A scientist named Chilowsky developed the first ultrasonic detection system, which was used by the French government to find submarines.
- Worldwide interest in the amazing possibilities of ultrasound The world quickly realized that sonography, ultrasound, and the principles of piezoelectricity had enormous possibilities. By the 1920s, soccer teams in Europe were using ultrasound therapy for healing and physical therapy, and everyone was using it to try and find enemy submarines. It was also used to make vaccines sterile and even combined with radiation to treat cancer. It was applied to give relief from pain of arthritis, gout, ulcers, and even eczema.
- Ultrasound as a diagnostic tool It was finally in the 1940s that ultrasound was first used to diagnose conditions in the human body. George Ludwig at the Naval Medical Research Institute of Maryland started using the technology to find gallstones. Meanwhile, over in Colorado, a radiologist names Howry was messing with different megahertz scanners to broaden the usefulness of ultrasound. John Reid and John Wild worked together on a handheld instrument that could detect tumors in the breast, and Wolf Keidel tried using it on the heart. His work eventually led to the development of the echocardiogram and Doppler radar.
- Ultrasound gets smaller and more powerful The first ultrasound machines were enormous and limited in their scanning and reporting abilities. In the 1980s, ultrasound became real-time and scanning improved immensely. In the 1990s, 3D and 4D scanners were invented, and it became easier than ever to interpret what you were seeing in the scanner. Meanwhile, the probes and scanners grew smaller and smaller until today handheld devices can be used for scanning and ultrasound therapy in a doctor’s office, on the battlefield, or even in space.
The Future of Ultrasound
Ultrasound therapy is currently being used for trigeminal neuralgia pain relief and for many other conditions. Ultrasound scanners are used all over the world to find things in the sea, on the land, and in the human body. Yet scientists and doctors continue to improve the technology, aiming to be able to scan patients that have been traditionally hard to image, working to make devices more ergonomic and mobile, and hoping to make the devices able to do things like measure blood flow in real time. There is also interest in making ultrasound more useful when it comes to diagnosing conditions so that fewer invasive biopsies have to be performed.
If the past is any indication, the future of ultrasound is bright and we’re only beginning to see all the possibilities for this amazing technology.