Is Thermography an Alternative to Mammograms?
Thermography is a noninvasive tool that uses infrared technology to create images that show heat and blood flow on or near the skin. The rationale for thermography in breast imaging is that the skin overlying a malignant breast lesion is warmer than that of the surrounding breast tissue. The theory is that as the cells of cancer increase, they use more and more oxygen enriched blood so they can grow. When the blood flow increases to the tumor, the temperature around the tumor rises. In essence, breast thermography produces “heat pictures” of the breast without using radiation.
Thermography has been available for several decades and was approved in 1982 by the FDA for breast cancer screening, ONLY when used in conjunction with standard of care screening, like mammography.
Breast surgeons still advocate for screening mammography. We understand that patients are concerned with the radiation dose received from mammography, but the radiation dose from a mammogram is a little more than from a chest x-ray, but less than the exposure from the radon present in the average home or relative annual increase in cosmic radiation exposure from living in a high altitude city like Denver. It is much less than the dose delivered from a barium x-ray study of the abdomen or CT scan. In essence, mammograms are safe.
In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that homeopathic clinics, health spas, and other facilities are offering thermography as an alternative to mammography.
However, they note that there is no scientific evidence to support this use of thermography, and they urge people to attend regular mammography as their doctor recommends.
The FDA issued the following warning:
“There is no valid scientific data to demonstrate that thermography devices, when used on their own or with another diagnostic test, are an effective screening tool for any medical condition including the early detection of breast cancer or other diseases and health conditions.”
Over the years, computers have improved and images by thermographic units may also look more up to date but the science is the same.
The bottom line is that studies have failed to show that thermography is a good screening tool to detect breast cancer in the earliest stages when the cancer is the most treatable. Neither he American Cancer Society nor the FDA recommend thermography as a replacement for mammograms.
Remember that thermography alone has not proven to be effective as a standalone test.