A Guide to Thermography Uses, Benefits, and Cautions

Medically Reviewed By Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH

Thermography is a noninvasive imaging test that is used to detect temperature differences on the skin. The test uses an infrared camera and no radiation. Thermography has many uses. Thermography can be used in addition to mammograms to detect breast cancer. Another name for thermography is digital infrared thermal imaging.

This article will discuss what thermography is and what the test is used for.

What is thermography?

Thermal scan of hand
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Thermography is a type of imaging test that measures small temperature changes. It measures differences within a specific organ or between two sides of the body. The test is noninvasive and does not use radiation. It is sometimes used to screen for breast cancer. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Trusted Source Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Governmental authority Go to source warns that it should not be used as a substitute for a mammogram.

Thermographic cameras detect infrared radiation emitted by humans or objects. The amount of radiation emitted by a human or object increases with temperature. Thermography allows the technician to see temperature variations. Usually, warm surfaces stand out among cooler ones.

What is thermography used for?

Thermography can be used for:

  • Cancer screening: Thermography can be used as a supporting tool alongside mammograms to detect breast cancer. Infrared thermography Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source can detect skin cancer because of the temperature changes and temperature distribution on the skin.
  • Neurological uses: Thermography can be used to screen for certain neurological conditions. These include complex regional pain syndrome, peripheral nerve disorders, and nerve root compression. Some scientists question the use of thermography in diagnosing neurological conditions.
  • Cardiovascular screening: Thermography can be used in the diagnosis of atherosclerosis. Plaque thermography is used to detect the increased temperature in plaques that have active inflammation.
  • Ophthalmology use: Ocular thermography Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source can be used to detect ocular inflammation, dry eye, and eye functionality after glaucoma surgery.

Is thermography a replacement for mammography?

Thermography should not replace mammography for breast cancer screening. Rather, it should be used as an additional tool in screening for breast cancer. Mammography remains the most effective primary screening test for breast cancer.

Thermography has not been shown to be effective as a standalone test in the screening or diagnosis of early stage breast cancer.

How is thermography performed?

Thermography typically takes 30–40 minutes to perform. You will be asked to fill out your health history before the scan.

You will then be asked to rest comfortably in the exam room for 5–15 minutes. This allows the area of your body being scanned to acclimate to the room temperature. 

If you are having thermography on your breasts, you will be asked to disrobe from the waist up during this time. For ocular thermography, you will need to remove contacts or glasses.

After this, the technician will position the body area to be scanned in front of the noncontact thermographic camera. The technician will take thermal images and transfer them to a computer to be interpreted by a doctor.

For ocular thermography, both thermal images and nonthermal photographs may be taken at the same magnification and distance from the eye.

How do I prepare for thermography?

To prepare for a thermography exam:

  • Do not smoke for 2 hours before the imaging test.
  • Do not exercise before the test.
  • Do not receive acupuncture, massage, or chiropractic adjustment before the test.
  • Avoid sun exposure on the day of the test.
  • For breast thermography, do not use antiperspirant, deodorant, lotion, or powder on your breasts or underarms.

What are the risks and potential complications of thermography?

There is minimal risk involved with thermography because the test uses no radiation. Breast thermography is contactless, unlike mammograms, where breasts are compressed.

Although thermography is safe, there is limited research to prove its effectiveness. For example, it is not as sensitive as a mammogram in detecting breast cancer.

What can I expect after thermography?

You should have no pain or discomfort after receiving thermography. You will be able to resume your normal activities.

After thermography, a doctor will analyze the images and interpret the results. Your doctor will discuss the results and may provide a full report of the findings. If something is detected on the scan, your doctor may send you for other imaging tests to confirm the findings.

What does thermography cost?

Thermography typically costs $175–$250 and is not usually covered by insurance. Costs will depend on where you live and what part of the body is being scanned. In some cases, you may be able to submit a claim to your insurance company for possible reimbursement.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about thermography.

What does red on a thermography scan mean?

Bright colors on a thermography scan, such as red, yellow, or orange, indicate warmer temperatures on the skin surfaces. This means that more heat and infrared radiation are being emitted, indicating inflammation or possible cancerous cells.

Can thermal imaging detect inflammation?

Thermal imaging can detect inflammation by picking up on areas of warmer temperature on the skin surfaces. These areas will appear red on the scan.

Summary

Thermography is an imaging test that detects changes in temperature on skin surfaces. Unlike other imaging tests, thermography is noninvasive and does not use any radiation.

Thermography can be used to detect certain types of cancers, neurological disorders, ocular inflammation, and atherosclerosis. The FDA does not recommend thermography as a replacement for mammography to detect breast cancer. Thermography can be used as an additional tool to help detect breast cancer. Thermography is not typically covered by insurance, and most people pay out of pocket for this test.

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Medical Reviewer: Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 29
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