BREAST THERMOGRAPHY – AN OVERVIEW
Breast thermography is a physiological test that provides information on temperature and infrared heat patterns of the breast. Because the skin naturally emits thermal radiation (heat), it is well suited to infrared imaging. Thermography differs from mammography in that it provides information on the biological activity of the breast versus the gross internal anatomy. Infrared imaging is a functional test, whereas mammography is a structural test.
As a functional test, thermography can detect breast abnormalities that other screening methods cannot identify, namely thermal and vascular changes. The increased metabolic activity seen on a breast thermogram can be an indication of injury, mastitis, fibrocystic breast disease or cancer. These functional changes are thought to take place before the onset of structural changes that can occur in diseased or cancerous states. A persistent abnormal thermogram can alert the physician to the need for further investigation and identify women who need to be more closely monitored.
Because thermograms in a healthy woman remain remarkably constant, serial thermograms can assess tissue changes over time. A healthy initial thermogram serves as a baseline to compare future thermograms against.
Recognizing the Limitations of Thermal Imaging
Thermography cannot, and does not, diagnose breast cancer. This is true also for anatomical tests such as mammograms, ultrasounds and magnetic resonance imaging. Such tests provide information on the different aspects of the disease process and identify the need for further investigations. A biopsy of the breast and accompanying histological evaluation is the only definitive diagnostic test for breast cancer.
Understanding the Strengths of Breast Thermography
Thermography is a non-invasive, contact-free procedure that doesn’t require compression of the breasts. There is no exposure to radiation, which means repeat tests are safe and without risk. One of the key benefits of thermography is its effectiveness in women with dense breasts, making it suitable for:
Younger women – approximately 18% of breast cancers are diagnosed in women during their forties. Women who develop breast cancer at a younger age tend to have more rapidly growing cancers that are more likely to metastasize.
Women taking hormone therapy – results from the Women’s Health Initiative trial revealed a significant increase in invasive breast cancer when taking synthetic hormone replacement therapy. Serial thermograms can also help monitor the effects of hormone treatment for fibrocystic breasts.
Women with fibrocystic changes – fibrous breasts are very dense and can mask early cancers, particularly if no micro calcifications are present. Research shows that approximately 40% of women with fibrocystic disease and an abnormal thermogram develop breast cancer within 5 years. Conversely, women with fibrocystic disease and a normal thermogram have a less than 3% likelihood of developing breast cancer. Thermography can also provide early warnings of breast abnormalities and highlight potentially suspicious cases particularly when mammographic and clinical exams are equivocal, or non-specific.
Thermography as an Independent Risk Marker
An estimated 60-70% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have none of the obvious risk factors. For this reason, breast cancer has been considered an equal opportunity killer. According to researchers, a persistent abnormal thermogram is thought to be the single greatest indicator of breast cancer risk and is considered 10 times more important than a positive family history for the disease.
The Value of Thermography as a Complementary Tool
An increase in the detection rate of breast cancer has been demonstrated in a number of peer-reviewed studies with the combined use of clinical breast examination, mammography and thermography. In one study using high-resolution thermography, an abnormal thermogram coupled with a positive mammogram and clinical breast exam was associated with a 98% sensitivity rate for breast cancer detection. Results from a recent 2010 trial showed an 89% sensitivity rate for the detection of breast cancer in women under 50 when thermal imaging and mammography were combined. The increase in sensitivity relates to the fact that mammography and thermography do not always identify the same lesion.
Thermography is not a competitor to, nor a replacement for mammography. Rather, it is an adjunct tool that can identify areas of abnormal thermal symmetry, which are often associated with underlying pathology. When used together with mammography, thermography may contribute to the best possible evaluation of breast health.
Other infrared imaging applications include identification and monitoring of:
• Inflammatory conditions (Arthritis)
• Carpal tunnel syndrome
• Chronic pain
• Complex regional pain syndrome
• Musculoskeletal disorders (fybromyalgia, whiplash, chronic back pain)
For more information or to book an appointment, please contact our office at 705.586.7873