What is Thermology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Thermology is a medical imaging technique in which an infrared camera is used to generate an image of the body or an area of interest. This technique is noninvasive, and requires no physical contact with the patient. It can be used as a diagnostic tool for a range of medical conditions and can be performed in a hospital, clinic, or doctor's office, as long as the facility has the necessary equipment.

Firefighters can use thermal cameras to examine the site of a fire before going in to look for hot spots.
Firefighters can use thermal cameras to examine the site of a fire before going in to look for hot spots.

Infrared imaging of the body can reveal a great deal of interesting information. Many people have noted that active infections cause the site around the infection to grow warmer, something which will show up on a thermal imaging camera, but they may not be aware that even when there are no physical signs of inflammation or infection, a sensitive infrared camera can pick up telltale variations in skin temperature which act like a red flag.

Medical thermography is sometimes used to confirm a cancer diagnosis.
Medical thermography is sometimes used to confirm a cancer diagnosis.

The temperature of the skin is also influenced by the vascular system, the nervous system, and the metabolism. Errors ranging from venous malformations to problems with the area of the brain which regulates body temperature can show up on a thermology study. Thermology can also be combined with a physiological challenge to gather more information. For example, a patient's hands or feet could be plunged into cold water, and the resulting physical changes could be tracked.

One way to use a thermology study is in diagnosis. The study can reveal a medical problem which may not be visible with the naked eye. For example, in women with breast cancer, changes in the body temperature around the breast can be observed, as a result of changes in the circulatory system related to the malignant growth. Thermology can also be an aid to treatment, as in the case of a patient who is completing a food challenge to explore allergies; a food may cause mild breakouts of skin around the face which are only visible on a thermogram.

Several professional organizations dedicated to clinical thermology can be found around the world. These organizations promote research, publish studies, and establish guidelines for the practiceof thermological imaging so that it will be consistent and of high quality. Thermology is only one among a library of imaging tools available to physicians, but it can be tremendously useful.

Infrared cameras are also used in other fields. For example, firefighters use such cameras to identify people inside a burning building and thermological imaging of buildings can be used to evaluate electrical problems, determine energy efficiency, and look for other issues of interest.

Thermology may be used in conjunction with traditional breast cancer detection procedures such as a mammogram.
Thermology may be used in conjunction with traditional breast cancer detection procedures such as a mammogram.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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