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Infrared Thermography, Thermal Imaging

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Injuries often result in increased temperature to overlying skin due to inflammation (increased blood circulation to the inflamed area). Thermography is a veterinary diagnostic that uses skin temperature to help localize injury.

A thermal imaging camera is pointed at the patient and a color image is generated on the camera’s liquid crystal display. The infrared radiation from the camera produces brightly colored patterns based on temperature variations in the skin. Red typically indicates warmer areas and blue indicates cooler areas. In short, thermography provides a visual map of skin temperature.

Thermography is commonly used in lameness diagnosis. It offers a rapid survey of the skin temperature over a large part of the animal, which may lead a clinician to a more focused examination. While that knowledge has value, other diagnostics and careful clinical exam are necessary to assign significance to the results of this diagnostic.

Thermography should always be performed by a veterinarian using a suitably sensitive device intended for medical application.

Benefits

Thermography is easy to use, noninvasive and comparatively inexpensive.

When used by a trained veterinarian, it has some value in rapidly surveying the skin temperature of an equine. It may help a vet focus their diagnostic efforts on a particular region.

Limitations

There is disagreement about the diagnostic value of thermography in both human and veterinary medicine. Claims made by proponents of this technology are often exaggerated.

Claims that this diagnostic can yield a diagnosis should be viewed with suspicion. In addition, many factors can reduce the value of this diagnostic including exposure to sun, amount of skin moisture, and the amount of fat under the skin. Skin temperature does not always correlate to injury. Small breezes have been shown to dramatically reduce thermography results, which reduces it's diagnostic value.

Thermography has a wide variety of applications in various industries and there are many different devices. Medical IR cameras are very sensitive to temperature variations, over a more narrow range.

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QUESTIONS TO ASK MY VET

  • Should I trust a non-vet who claims they can diagnose a problem using this test?
  • How helpful are the results of this test?
  • What other diagnostics should be performed along with this one?
  • Is your device sufficiently sensitive to perform medical scans?
  • Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

    RELATED REFERENCES

    Westermann S, Stanek C, Schramel JP, et al. The effect of airflow on thermographically determined temperature of the distal forelimb of the horse. Equine Vet J 2013:1-5.

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