Non-invasive thermal imaging: Functional heat maps of the body

Measuring temperature differences was fundamentally important to the Greek physician, Hippocrates. He placed mud-soaked cloths across the thorax of his patients, and where the mud dried first, it was an indicator of a disease process, or location of a disorder. This early understanding gave way to evaluating human body thermoregulation, and how human body surface temperatures relate to underlying physical problems. This is a field now referred to variously as thermology, or medical thermal imaging.

Living organisms generate heat. This heat radiated from the surface can be detected through the use of a highly sensitive imaging camera from Teletherm infrared systems. It maps the temperature distribution over a region of the body very quickly. Each anatomical region has a distinctive thermal pattern and associated thermal differences, due to local variations in vascularity and surface circulatory efficiency.

Thermal images can be a first line of visualization of underlying functional abnormalities. When there is a challenge placed on the human system, such as trauma, sudden thermal shock from heat or cold, or from an internal disorder, there will be an alteration to the thermal patterns associated with an area. This is from a change to the microcirculation near the surface of the skin.

The advances provided with the Teletherm infrared cameras have led to the use of small, compact devices, with high resolution and sensitivity, that can fit in the palm of the hand. They’re being used today by physicians in all specialties around the world

In simplest form, medical thermal imaging is best considered to be the third leg of the diagnostic imaging triad of structure, chemistry, and function. Conventional and cross-sectional X-ray imaging provides structural information on the subject. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides both a structural and a localized, but 3-dimensional chemical volume imaging element (voxel) of the body. The third leg of this imaging triad is Infrared Thermal Imaging which provides a referred functional map of the body.

Teletherm infrared cameras are adjunctive devices, and not considered solely diagnostic. In relation to X-rays, it can complement the structural information provided by the X-ray, leading to a more thorough examination. It can also help with the other imaging methods by enabling a more precise set of views, rather than a generalized approach, thereby reducing exposure.

Some patients are not candidates for MRI, for example, and therefore, thermal imaging is a low-cost initial step, especially when symptoms are non-specific or multi-faceted. Its use in brain surgery at the University of Southern California is revolutionary where they’ve determined the potential for thermal imaging to locate the margins of primary and metastatic brain tumors. Earlier work, published in 2002 by Mayo Clinic, demonstrated, intraoperatively, that infrared imaging “exhibited the distinct thermal footprints of 14 of 16 brain tumors.” It provided “real-time assessment of cerebral vessel patency and cerebral perfusion.”

The use of the Teletherm is absolutely non-contact, with no radiation or penetrating forces being sent into the body. The instrument facilitates early diagnosis and successful treatment plans.

Thermal imaging also helps to verify a patient’s progress through therapy and rehabilitation, and can indicate whether change is temporary, or more permanent.

The scanning of children and expectant mothers are excellent examples of the value with thermal imaging. At the Department of Pediatric Surgery, Medical University of Graz, Austria, "IRT (infrared thermal imaging) was found to be an excellent noninvasive tool in the follow-up of hemangiomas, vascular malformations and digit amputations related to reimplantation, burns, as well as skin and vascular growth after biomaterial implants in newborns with gastroschisis and giant omphaloceles. In the emergency room, it was a valuable tool for rapid diagnosis of extremity thrombosis, varicoceles, inflammation, abscesses, gangrene and wound infections."

Thermal imaging has applications in breast oncology, integrative medicine, plastic surgery, osteopathy, dentistry, orthopedics, acupuncture, occupational medicine, pain management, vascular medicine, cardiology and veterinary medicine.

It’s important to have an infrared imaging system designed for clinical use, however, and from manufacturers familiar with real world medical applications. Software is key to supporting image post-processing. Teletherm infrared has been providing systems, specifically for clinical use, for over thirty years.

The volume of work being conducted throughout the world, on a continuing basis with thermal imaging, is significant. It contributes to this diagnostic and monitoring option being of paramount importance to the modern clinical practice of the future. The ancient Egyptians used the scanning ability of their hands with their brain acting as a computer. They understood that temperature rose and fell over time, and localized in a specific wound or was generalized over the entire body. We now have this advanced tool with the Teletherm infrared thermal imaging camera, and tablet computers to assist us instantaneously, and in an extremely visual and non-intrusive way.

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