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Low-cost little ultrasound device could revolutionize day-to-day joint & muscle pain relief

  [ 63 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • March 30, 2010

It’s lightweight, cell phone size, and can deliver low-intensity ultrasound therapy for up to 10 hours. It just might revolutionize pain relief and reduce drug use/side effects, Cornell University inventor-researchers explain.
A miniature ultrasound device has shown early, promising results as a non-pharmaceutical method of addressing joint and muscle pain. Invented and refined by George K. Lewis, a Cornell doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, the device has proven effective in pilot studies using patients with a range of pain conditions from tendinitis to joint pain. The next step will be a larger-scale extended clinical trial to measure impact on pain, mobility, etc., under the supervision of Dr. Cary Reid, MD, PhD, Weill Cornell Medical College faculty member and geriatrician.

For Use Any Time, Anywhere
Unlike current higher-intensity ultrasound (sound wave) therapies that require time-consuming and costly office visits, this miniature ultrasound device can deliver low-intensity therapy for hours, under a doctor’s supervision but with one major difference – a patient can undertake treatment outside of the doctor’s office. (Even at work or while you’re walking or jogging, according to Lewis.) Further, the ability to apply ultrasound for extended periods increases the therapy’s benefits, he says.

See the Device and the Inventor
To view an informative National Science Foundation-sponsored webcast briefing & Q&A by inventor George Lewis dated Mar 19, click here. Lewis, a prolific inventor, specializes in miniaturizing and increasing the efficiency of ultrasound devices. He explains the device, how it works, and future plans for trials and commercial availability.

Background on the Device and How It Works to Relieve Joint Pain
An accompanying National Science Foundation print press release explains how the device works, using an osteoarthritis patient’s knee as an example (click here to see and to enlarge accompanying illustration). It states:

"Imagine that after long day tending to patients, a middle-aged nurse feels a burning pain in her knees so intense she can barely walk. For millions of people who suffer from arthritis or other chronic joint pain, this is a familiar story. Right now there are few day-to-day therapies available for these patients, and many involve strong medications that can be harmful over time.

If George K. Lewis, a biomedical engineering graduate student at Cornell University has his way, there may soon be another option. Lewis and his colleagues have created a miniaturized ultrasound device that would allow patients to apply ultrasound therapy to inflamed joints at home, work, or even while going about their day.

Most of us are familiar with the amazing powers of diagnostic ultrasound technologies in modern medicine, which allow doctors to tell us the gender of a child prior to birth or the condition of our internal organs without exploratory surgery. Doctors have also used ultrasound therapeutically to effectively treat joint pain from arthritis and other ailments without the use of drugs. The drawback to these current treatments, however, is that they can only be administered in a doctor's office or clinic, since the ultrasound devices available are bulky and expensive.

Inventive Genius Plus Funding Produced a Breakthrough
Enter Lewis, who, with funding from the National Science Foundation, has spent his time at Cornell focusing on creating smaller and more accessible ultrasound devices for use in medicine. His portable ultrasound device for joint pain, which is now entering clinical trials in association with Weill Cornell Medical College geriatrician Dr. Cary Reid, is about the size of an iPod, and can provide pain relief for several hours without being tethered to a doctor's office.

After receiving instructions from their doctor, patients can apply the device themselves and adjust the level of ultrasound intensity as needed.

The key to Lewis's success in miniaturizing ultrasound devices is increasing their efficiency. Conventional devices lose about half the electricity used to create sound waves. Lewis has found a way to convert 95 percent of the device's electricity into sound waves.

So How Do Sound Waves Reduce Joint Pain?
A knee, for example, is surrounded by an area called the synovial sac. Think of this sac as a sponge. Osteoarthritis causes that ‘sponge' to become swollen with excess fluid and the knee to be painfully inflamed. Ultrasound penetrates the joint and the surrounding tissue, and its waves both stimulate the synovial sac ‘sponge' and increase its permeability, which helps it lose the excess fluid. Once the ‘sponge' is wrung out, swelling subsides, and the body can deliver nutrients to the joint that help repair it.

Lewis says there are other potential uses for his small ultrasound devices, just one example being treatment of glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. During surgery, Lewis explains, a surgeon could remove a tumor and replace it with a dissolving drug wafer, which ultrasound waves would then help spread to kill off any cancer cells left behind."

*      *      *     *

Overall, the device has demonstrated its effectiveness for pain relief in animal trials and pilot human trials, and seems likely to become an important non-drug tool to treat chronic joint & muscle pain safely. Additional applications, including using the device to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of drug therapies, are also being explored.

Demonstration for the Press Slated for April 13
Reid and Lewis will be on hand to demonstrate the device and talk with the media (only) Tuesday, April 13, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Weill Cornell Medical College, 1300 York Ave., New York City. Media inquiries, Email

For more information on the project and trial plans, contact George K Lewis at Cornell University -

Sources: National Science Foundation text and video press releases, Mar 19, 2010; Weill Cornell Medical College press release, Mar 23, 2010

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