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What is Diathermy?

By Rolando Braza
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Diathermy is a form of treatment in physical therapy that uses electromagnetic current at high frequencies to heat tissues located at different depths. Low heat is typically used to relieve a patient from muscle pain and facilitate repair of tissues that suffered from lesions that could occur when a person engages in physical sports. Treatment is generally painless and can be performed as an out-patient procedure in a clinic. A patient who undergoes this type of procedure could spare him- or herself from further reliance on pain relievers.

Three types of the procedure are available in physical therapy: microwave, shortwave, and ultrasound. Microwave diathermy uses wireless waves to penetrate lesions on superficial tissues that are only about 1.2 inches (about 3 cm) deep. It should never be applied to the sex organ. Shortwave diathermy also uses wireless waves but the waves are longer to penetrate deeper tissues, such as those located in the hip joints and the pelvic structure. Ultrasound diathermy, which uses ultrasonic sound to generate high-frequency vibrations to heat the affected tissues, can also penetrate deep tissues.

Diathermy is also applied in surgery. It is performed by applying higher degrees of heat to cauterize blood vessels in order to prevent too much bleeding. A surgeon can also use it to remove warts, infected tissues, and tumors that are sometimes cancerous. It is also valuable to surgeons who perform eye surgery and neurosurgery.

It is important to note that the procedure increases the blood flow to the tissues targeted by the treatment. As such, a patient suffering from hemophilia should be barred from going through diathermy because the patient will run the risk of hemorrhaging. Since the process uses heat during the treatment process, a patient who has metal parts in his or her body should also avoid the treatment because the metal lodged in the patient’s body is a conductor of heat that could cause serious burns. A medical professional should exclude the procedure, particularly the shortwave version, as a treatment option for a pregnant woman to preclude abnormal growth of the fetus. Likewise, a female patient should be restricted from undergoing diathermy in the pelvic region if she has a metallic contraceptive implant, such as an intrauterine device (IUD) because diathermy could cause heavy menstrual flow.

Precautions must be taken to ensure the safe and successful conduct of the procedure. Medical practitioners should avoid cleaning solutions made from alcohol to clean the skin before the procedure. Alcohol-based cleaning materials can burn the skin and even cause a fire. Patients also are typically advised to remove metal objects from their body and remove clothes that contain metal buttons and other accessories.

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