But now researchers say it could also be useful in quickly and painlessly treating internal lung injuries caused by trauma such as car accidents.
The study, Hemiostasis and Sealing of Air Leaks in the Lung Using High-Intensity Focused Ultrasound, is published in the June 2007 issue of Trauma.
"You can penetrate deep into the body and deliver the energy to the bleeding very accurately," said Shahram Vaezy, a University of Washington associate professor of bioengineering, in a release.
In tests on pigs' lungs, high-intensity ultrasound was directed at incisions, heating up the blood cells until they formed a seal. The procedure sealed the leaks in one or two minutes, reducing blood loss.
More than 95 per cent of the 70 incisions were stable after two minutes of treatment, according to the study.
Researchers believe that ultrasound might replace the painful, invasive surgery that is conducted when a person suffers a lung laceration that cannot be treated by standard procedures, such as applying pressure or draining the blood. It can often lead to complications, scarring, secondary infections and occasionally death, say the study's authors.
Lung injuries are relatively common because the chest is a big surface that's often exposed to crushing or puncture wounds, said Gregory Jurkovich, chief of trauma at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and a University of Washington professor of surgery.
The authors say that further studies are required before the procedure is used on humans.