History of Thermography

Heat has been considered one of the cardinal signs of disease ever since the time of the time of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine.  Over the centuries, scientific observations have reinforced the view that specific temperature changes can indeed indicate normal and abnormal physiologic processes in the body.

In 1957, it was discovered that the skin temperature over a cancer in the breast was higher than that of normal tissue. Thus began a period of extensive clinical use of breast thermal imaging.  Studies conducted throughout the 1970’s demonstrated the clinical benefits of breast thermography.  As early as 1976, at the Third International Symposium on Detection and Prevention of Cancer in New Hampshire, thermography was established by consensus as the highest risk marker for the possibility of the presence of an undetected breast cancer.

Although breast thermography was initially well accepted by the medical community, this view shifted suddenly with the release of a 1977 study that found thermography to lag behind mammography and other screening tools, the medical profession lost interest in this diagnostic approach.  (The 1977 study was later found to be flawed due to lack of quality control around the thermography procedures, images, and interpretation; thus it appears that thermography was dismissed prematurely.  Moreover, the technology behind digital infrared imaging has improved in leaps and bounds since those early years.)

Soon afterward, researchers at Ville Marie Breast and Oncology Center, at McGill University (Ontario, Canada) conducted a study of mammography and thermography.  When thermography was performed on patients with suspicious clinical examinations, the sensitivity was found to be 83%.  In contrast, the sensitivity for mammography was only 66%.  However, the combination of thermography and mammography together increased the sensitivity to 93%.  And when these two methods were considered in conjunction with a clinical examination of the breasts, the sensitivity was found to be 98%.

Such findings, along with those of more recent studies, have led a growing number of oncologists to recommend the combination of mammography and thermography—especially for older women who have more fatty tissue in their breasts, i.e., less dense breasts.  (Note: “Sensitivity” is a statistical term referring to the percentage of women who are correctly identified as having breast cancer.)  On January 29, 1982, the Food and Drug Administration published its approval and classification of thermography as an adjunctive diagnostic procedure for the detection of breast cancer.