Picture Your Health

Picture Your Health Like Never Before

Originally published in Boomers & Beyond, August 1, 2013

Imagine this scenario. You enjoy a great meal, but an hour later, you have a bad pain in your gut. After four or five hours, it goes away. The next day, the same thing happens again, and you know something is wrong. You visit your doctor and describe your experiences. After asking about what you ate and prodding sections of your belly, she recommends that you avoid certain types of foods. After dinner that night, you are in pain again.

Now imagine this scenario. You suffer through your annual mammogram and wait for the results. Your doctor calls you and says that the mammogram shows a small cloudy area that looks suspicious. You ask what that means, and your doctor informs you that while the area probably isn’t cancer, the mammogram isn’t very clear. You’re afraid. What if you have breast cancer? You ask about getting a second opinion, but your doctor recommends getting a biopsy.

Final scenario: Ever since a bad fall a couple of weeks ago, you have been having pain in your hip. Fearing a broken hip, you get an X-Ray of your hip. The X-Ray doesn’t reveal a break and doesn’t explain why you are in pain. But the pain is real. You just wish you knew why your hip hurts.

Enter thermal imaging, a new way to examine the state of your health using high-resolution infrared cameras.

Unlike typical photography cameras, which take a picture of visible light, infrared cameras take a picture of infrared light, the invisible light that depicts the heat coming from your skin. By revealing “hotter” and “colder” regions on your skin, thermal imaging provides accurate information about your body’s response to distress, disease, and damage. Clinical thermal imaging is known as thermography.

Here is how thermography works, in brief.

Confirmed Kidney Disease (mid-right red area)

Confirmed Kidney Disease (mid-right red area)

When something in your body isn’t right, the skin temperature corresponding to the distressed area changes. The infrared camera takes a picture of skin temperatures, and the images are sent to trained and certified thermography reading doctors. Any difference of at least 3 degrees centigrade indicates a significant finding and what and where the problem is.

The reading doctors analyze the images, prepare a report for the patient, and consult with the patient and patient’s doctor, as needed.

Unlike MRIs, X-rays, and mammograms, which look at anatomy (what is in the body), thermography examines physiology (how the body is functioning and responding to conditions). It is a different approach that can reveal not only how your body is functioning as a system but also what might be wrong.

As Dr. Gregory Melvin, a board-certified thermal imaging reading doctor explains, thermography is “a simple test of physiology that relies on the sympathetic nerve control of skin blood flow and the ability of the sympathetic system to respond and react to pathology anywhere in the body.”

Temperature changes may also be caused by altered blood flow or reduced nerve activity. Your hypothalamus, too, plays a critical role in thermal imaging. When your hypothalamus receives a signal from your nervous system that your body has a problem, it links with the endocrine system to send hormones to the affected area. The hypothalamus also raises the skin temperature at the affected area, producing a heat signature that thermal imaging cameras can detect.

Thermography and Cancer

Thermal imaging is valuable for detecting a wide variety of conditions, including cancer.

Thermographic image of breast cancer (white area)

Thermographic image of breast cancer (white area)

Cancer needs food to grow, meaning it needs more blood. To ensure its food supply, cancerous cells emit a protein to stimulate new artery growth, a process called angiogenesis. The increased blood flow raises the temperature around the cancer, and infrared cameras detect the increased temperature. Cancer cells also have a higher metabolic rate than normal cells, which means they produce higher than normal heat. When compared to the temperature of surrounding tissue, the increased heat markers for cancer are fairly obvious.

Gautherie and Gros (2006) found that “The more rapidly growing lesions with shorter doubling times usually show progressive thermographic abnormalities consistent with the increased metabolic heat production associated with such cancers.”

The initial images serve as a benchmark for comparison over time. 

“We’re looking to see how the temperature patterns change over time to see if the growth is aggressive or not,” Dr. Melvin explains.

Due to the way thermal imaging detects cancer, it may be able to identify breast cancer 5 to 8 years before any cancerous mass is noticeable on a mammogram. Furthermore, unlike mammograms, thermal imaging results are not affected by tissue density, and thermography is equally effective for women of all ages. It is FDA approved as an adjunctive to mammograms, and it doesn’t subject the patient to discomfort or potentially harmful radiation.

Thermography and Your Health

In fact, any condition that results in changed surface temperatures is identifiable through thermal imaging. If your brain detects a problem, the body will respond. If no problem exists, or if the body has already dealt with it, thermal imaging will not produce temperature indicators. As such, thermal imaging has both a low false positive rate, meaning signs of a problem that doesn’t exist, and a low false negative rate, meaning the rate at which actual conditions are missed.

Thermography has successfully identified many conditions, including breast cancer, carpal tunnel syndrome, fractures, thrombosis, diabetes, heart disease, herniated discs, muscle sprains, neuropathy and nerve entrapment, periodontal disease, stroke, and Raynaud’s disease, among others. In many cases, thermography can identify conditions that other medical diagnostic procedures and technologies miss, simply because it examines how the body is functioning in response to health conditions.

“With accurate information about your health,” explains Dr. Linda Coy, co-owner of Thermal Imaging of the Southwest, “you and your doctor can make reasonable, informed decisions about how to improve your health and prevent minor health risks from becoming major problems.”

Where, When, and How Much?

Thermal imaging technology is portable, requiring only an infrared camera, a computer with fairly sophisticated software, an appropriate climate-controlled environment, and a certified clinical thermographer. Although most thermal imaging is conducted at doctors’ offices or in thermal imaging facilities, imaging can also be conducted in alternative locations, such as spas, health fairs, and health food stores. The imaging itself takes from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the number of images taken.

In spite of thermography’s health benefits and accuracy, most insurance companies do not accept claims for thermal imaging at this time, though they will cover the costs of medical follow-up and treatment. Fortunately, however, costs for imaging are low, primarily because thermal imaging providers do not have to repay the high costs of expensive equipment, such as mammograms machines and MRI scanners. And as a completely safe, non-invasive, and accurate tool for picturing your health, the benefits are worth it.

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