Glasgow surgeon using ultrasound to treat fractures

By Eleanor Bradford
BBC Scotland Health Correspondent

media captionDoctors at Glasgow Royal Infirmary are using ultrasound to treat fracture patients and reduce healing time by one third

Doctors in the Scottish city which pioneered the use of ultrasound to scan the body are now using it to heal broken bones.

Orthopaedic surgeon Angus MacLean has been using the technology at Glasgow's Royal Infirmary's fracture clinic.

It has been shown to speed up recovery times for patients with severe fractures by more than a third.

Ultrasound was first developed as a diagnostic tool in Glasgow in the 1950s.

Mr MacLean said: "We use it for difficult fractures, the ones with problems with healing, and it's a very simple, painless treatment that we can give.

"It's a very interesting scientific development and there's good evidence that it just vibrates the cells a little which then stimulates healing and regeneration in the bone."

A team of specialists, led by Professor Ian Donald, produced the first images of the body using a technology adapted from sonar at Glasgow's Western Infirmary.

It has become one of the most common medical technologies in the world.

But it is only now, 50 years later, that its potential for aiding the healing process is being unlocked.

Apprentice engineer Gary Denham was offered ultrasound treatment after he fell 20ft (6m) from a water tank and broke his ankle into eight pieces.

"It's got a wee strap and that goes round where the break was," he explained.

"I put some gel on the probe and then I just put the probe inside the strap and then just basically leave it for 20 minutes. There's no sensation at all, it's completely painless."

Mr Denham's injury was so severe that there was a chance it would never heal and might eventually have to be amputated.

After ultrasound treatment, he was back on his feet within months.

He added: "I'd never heard of it before, but my leg healed after four months and I'm looking to go back to work within eight months."

Because of the costs involved - around £1,000 per patient - ultrasound is only being used on complex fractures at Glasgow Royal Infirmary but Mr Denham's doctor, Mr MacLean, is very happy with the results.

image captionOrthopaedic surgeon Angus MacLean is leading the use of the technology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary

"Before we used ultrasound I would expect to see this kind of injury healing with some difficulty, and some of them don't heal at all," he said.

"Even if they do heal, it can take between six and 12 months and patients have ongoing pain during that time.

"The evidence suggests that ultrasound speeds things up by about 40%, but the main interest for me is to use it to make sure the bone heals rather than the bone not 'knitting' together which then leads to serious problems."

The technology is similar to that used on pregnant women.

Ultrasound waves are used at a slightly different frequency and a slightly different pulse. Research suggests this encourages cells to remove bacteria, stimulates the production of new bone cells and encourages those cells to mature more rapidly.

It is expected the cost of using ultrasound to treat fractures will reduce over time, making it a cheap way to speed up the healing of common fractures as well as complex ones.

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