Frequently Asked Questions about Medical Thermography

How does thermography detect health problems?

Medical thermography can detect abnormalities associated with various kinds of disorders by detecting tiny temperature variations near the surface of the body. Inflammation and injury can cause the tissue around the site of the problem to be hotter than normal tissue, and the infrared-imaging camera captures this temperature variation.

Thermographic images use computer-generated color to reveal the varying temperatures, with yellow, orange and red indicating hotter areas. The images are also computer analyzed using mathematical algorithms to plot minute temperatures differences, often to within a sensitivity of 0.05 degrees Centrigrade. An experienced thermographer is then able to interpret this analysis in meaningful diagnostic ways.

For example in spinal disorders, pressure on the spinal nerves causes the surrounding tissue to heat up, and this becomes visible in a thermogram. In the same way, follow-up scans can show the resolution of the problem by showing a reduction or return to normal of the previously elevated temperature.

As other examples, musculo-skeletal and joint inflammation easily become visible thermographically, whether the problem is caused by trauma, overuse, crystal deposits, or a rheumatoid process. The extent of the inflammation as well as the resolution of the problem can be plainly seen. And thermography is the only reliable and non-invasive way to document Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (formerly known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy).  

How accurate is breast thermography?

One of the most frequent uses for thermographic imaging is the detection, prognosis, and follow-up of breast cancer in both women and men. A review of 15 large-scale studies showed breast thermography to be 90% sensitive for cancer of the breast. Adding X-ray mammography and clinical exam increases the odds of detecting breast cancer to 98%. Like mammography and other imaging technologies, thermography is subject to producing false positives and false negative results. That’s why it is important to have regular (once yearly at a minimum) thermograms. By establishing a baseline, subtle changes can be detected over time. Theromgraphy is FDA-approved as an adjunct screening diagnostic tool for breast cancer, best used along with mammorgraphy, self-exam and clinical exam. Read more and see images relating to thermography and breast cancer screening further down in this page.

Is there a correlation between the thermographic image and the stage of cancer?

Because thermography is detecting heat, and not actual physical tissue changes, it may reveal a problem, such as cancer, long before that problem is visible to other kinds of imaging technologies, such as X-rays or CAT scans. Thus, it can provide important information long before it might otherwise be available. Some studies suggest that thermography can detect the telltale signs of breast cancer up to 8 to 10 years before it is detectable by other methods. In addition, the amount of thermographic abnormality has been shown to be directly proportional to the aggressiveness of the cancer.

Thermography can also show a return toward “normal,” thereby helping to provide evidence that a cancer therapy (whether it be surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or an alternative method) is effective.* It can also monitor the effectiveness of other kinds of therapies used to treat other health issues, from arthritis to cluster headaches to back problems.

*References available upon request.

Who should have a thermogram?

While many of our clients are referred to us by their physicians, individuals also decide on their own to monitor their health as part of a preventative health strategy, to confirm suspicions of a problem, and/or to monitor the effectiveness of a therapy they may be undergoing.

For example, thermography may reveal evidence of peripheral neuropathy in diabetics long before they experience symptoms, providing them time to consult with their physician to head off more serious problems.

Since inflammation is generally recognized in mainstream medicine as evidence that some aspect of the body is in distress, a way to image internal inflammation can be an important part of staying healthy. Chronic inflammation usually precedes the development of a  health problem. Thermography is an excellent way to gauge inflammation. Many people choose to have a full-body thermogram every year or so for just this reason. This way they can reveal any problems that may be occurring, and they can also reveal changes over time that may provide clues to a developing health condition.

Women who add thermography to their breast health screening routine (mammography, self-exam and clinical exam) substantially increase their chances of catching a potential cancer. If they start thermographic screening early enough, they can often catch a tumor while it is still tiny. In this way, they give themselves time to coordinate with their physician to choose the most effective and least invasive therapies. Women who have breast implants and who have fibrocystic breast tissue may also benefit from thermography, as X-ray mammography is less accurate for these women. Young women also benefit. If they have a family history of breast cancer, they can start screening young, in their 20's, without risk of radiation exposure. (Thermography is completely radiation-free.) With regular thermograms, they are likely to detect any troublesome issues long before they are ready to start screening with regular mammorgraphy. Thermography does not replace mammography, but it provides a different kind of infromation that can serve as in important source of knowledge about overall breast health.

How should I prepare for my thermography scan?

Please download the file: Thermography Pre-Scan Instructions

Why do I have be cooled down before the thermographic images are taken? 

The brief (15 minute) cooling down period is important to get your body into a vasoconstricted state. You can think of this as reaching temperature equilibrium, so that when the images are taken, any temperature differences that show up can be more confidently associated with an abnormality.

There are many external and internal conditions that influence surface body temperature, from whether you have been out in the sun shortly before coming to your appointment to whether you just ate a large meal and your gastrointestinal track is revved up digesting food to whether you just smoked a cigarette (which constricts some of your blood vessels). So both the cooling down period, which is done in an environmentally controlled room (kept at between 68 and 70 degrees F), and your following the pre-screening instructions are important. 

Do I have to do a “cold challenge test”? 

No, except for clients undergoing a scan for Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, where a warm/cold challenge is necessary to provide evidence of the disorder.

A cold challenge involves immersing a hand, or other extremity, in very cold water before an image is taken. This was a procedure that was in widespread use, especially for breast cancer screening, for many years, but it has since been shown to be ineffective and unnecessary.

Use of cold challenge tests are outdated for almost all uses of thermography except Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome. In fact, if a client is shivering, the infrared image quality could be degraded.So, no, you won't have to undergo a cold challenge test except unless for rare and very specific reasons.

For breast cancer screening, imaging the nose after a cooling-off period is enough to demonstrate that the proper vasoconstriction has occurred for thermal images to be useful diagnostically, which is why for a breast scan we always also take at least one image the face. 

Do I get to see the thermographic images?

Yes. At Integrative Life Solutions, Dr. Campbell conducts the entire process, including interpreting the images and writing up the report. He will get your email or mailing address during the intake process and will email or mail you a report of the results. That report includes some or all of the thermography images, with a brief explanation of what they mean. 

Copies of all report and images are securely backed up offsite, so that your reports will always be safely archived should you need them in the future. In addition, Dr. Campbell will send your report to your personal physician, and consult with him or her, should the need arise. 

What is the rating scale for breast screening images?

In addition to the information about breast thermography on this and other pages of the thermography section of this website, it is important for you to understand the rating system currently used by almost all thermographers.

Based on the results of your thermogram, your breast images will be rated along a scale of TH-1 to TH-5. The meaning of each rating, and a representative thermographic image that falls into that rating category, is provided below. However, please note that this is an overview only. Only an experienced thermographer can properly interpret and rate any thermographic image, and sophisticated computer processing is an integral part of that analysis. You can read more about the origin of this rating scale by selecting the "Ville Marie Breast Thermography Grading Scale" in the Thermography Forms dropdown list at the top of this page.

TH-1 Normal Exam

Breasts are uniformly cool, without hot spots or vascular markings. 

 

TH-2 Normal/Vascular
Breasts show slight to moderate vascular markings, but they are mostly symmetrical. 
Breasts are uniform in temperature. Follow-up over time will show any changes in the 
vascular patterns.
 
TH-3 Equivocal
Breasts show strong although symmetrical vascular patterning, with a slightly warmer 
area near the left nipple. Warrants follow-up screening in four to six months to monitor 
for changes.
 
TH-4 Abnormal
Asymmetrical vascularity of left breast, with significant temperature increase of 2 
degrees F in part of that breast. Follow-up testing by other methods, such as X-ray 
mammography, required.
 
TH-5 Very Abnormal
Marked asymmetrical vascularity of medial left breast, with a substantive warming of 
that entire breast. Follow-up testing required. In this case, following a mammogram, a 
biopsy was performed, and a 1-inch diameter carcinoma was found.
 

TH-2 Normal/Vascular

Breasts show slight to moderate vascular markings, but
they are mostly symmetrical.
Breasts are uniform in temperature.
Follow-up over time will show any changes in the 
vascular patterns.

Thermographic image of female breasts normal vascular

 

TH-3 Equivocal

Breasts show strong although symmetrical vascular patterning.
In this image, there is also a slightly warmer area near the left nipple,
which warrants follow-up screening in four to six months to monitor 
for changes.

Thermographic image of female breasts equivocal patterns

 

TH-4 Abnormal

This image shows abnormal asymmetrical vascularity of left breast,
with a significant temperature increase of two degrees F in
 part of that breast.
Follow-up testing by other methods, such as X-ray 
mammography, is required.

Thermographic image Asymmetrical vascularity of left breast

 

TH-5 Very Abnormal

In this image there is marked asymmetrical vascularity
of the medial left breast, with a substantive warming of that entire breast.
Follow-up testing was required. In this case, following a mammogram,
biopsy was performed, and a 1-inch carcinoma was found.

Thermographic image Marked asymmetrical vascularity of medial left breast, with a substantive warming of that entire breast

 

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