What it is and what it isn't!
Thermography does a different job to diagnostic methods such as ultrasound, X-ray or MRI; the latter all of which test and reveal the actual state of structure and anatomy. These diagnostics are necessary to reveal the nature and degree of breakdown that has already occurred in tissue. Thermography pinpoints the WHERE; it reveals the physiology of tissue as it is occurring now; the source of the greatest activity. It can succinctly and directly show which specific area needs further investigation. It has a primary role in locating the whereabouts of a problem area as well as the activity in the problem area.
What it does and what it doesn't!
Thermography has a further function in being able to highlight activity before actual breakdown and in tracking changes in physiology over a period of time. Thermography will clearly reveal comparative temperature differences which allows us to see a one sided discrepancy; a hot or cold limb, inflammation or heat in one sacro-iliac area or stifle or tendon or ligament, etc. It will also highlight old lesions and old injuries in soft tissue structures which may prove to be invaluable when purchasing a new horse. Thermography allows us to see the specific location of strained or torn muscles. It can also help to assess the effects that have been placed on the musculo-skeletal system after extreme exertion and the extent of damage, or secondary damage, after a fall or accident.
Infrared themrography gives a picture of the surface temperature so whilst it can reveal that heat from deeper structures are radiating outwards towards the skin the thermal scan is not 'seeing' beneath the skin. So readings are the surface temperature readings.
This technology provides a quick and non-invasive method of establishing more or less activity being present and thereby has a leading role in preventative measures to avoid breakdown and has an equal role in monitoring a 'healed' injury that is being brought back into work or is being newly stressed. Thermography will show physiological activity and how it changes over time.
Thermographists are trained to 'read' thermography images just as a radiologist read x-rays and an ultrasound technician reads ultrasound images. We are looking for temperature changes, perhaps asymmetries where one side looks different to the other and patterns that may be 'suspicious'. Cold spots in horses are as important as hot spot, perhaps more so and images may be revealing underlying issues in horses that have been previously gone unnoticed and untreated until eventual breakdown makes the insult obvious. Every individual has their own blueprint of vascular (blood supply) and anatomy that is particular to them. So we can get a thermal fingerprint of an individual and track changes over time.
For owners who are conscious of preventative approaches to their horse's health and concerned about the impacts upon their horse's back, lower limb structures and hoof balance and health will want to take benefit from a regular screening process and share results with their regular bodyworkers; equine massage therapists, physiotherapists, farrier, trimmer, etc.
Regular scans can show up slight changes and irregularities that may be addressed and rectified, by management or treatment, before any actual damage has taken place and more frequently for someone wishing to moniter an injury or return to work after breakdown. It can also be helpful for owners to be able to present a thermal image to their vet if they are worried about a particular issue or an indefinable 'not quite right-ness'. A thermal report may provide the information to allow the jigsaw pieces of the horse to fall into place.
Thermal imaging is very good for pain assessment and picking up nerve damage and muscle atrophy.