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What is Equine Thermal Imaging?
Equine thermography is a non-invasive veterinary diagnostic technique. In equine thermal imaging, an infrared camera is used to detect heat/cold—indicators of inflammation or circulatory issues in horses. A camera with a sensor measures the infrared emissions from a horse's body. Once the information is recorded, it enters the camera and the temperature variations are depicted in the display with different colors corresponding to different temperatures. Essentially what we can see is the horse's body, then we look at specific areas and compare them between one leg or one site and another. After images are recorded in the camera they are then downloaded into a computer that analyzes the data and generates a report which indicates the relevance of the temperature variations. The reason that heat detection is important is because the presence of heat is considered one of the cardinal signs of inflammation. The human hand is able to appreciate, in some circumstances, a change in temperature of 1.0 degrees C, while this camera can detect changes down to 0.1 degrees C, a ten-fold improvement. In addition to heat, the camera will also appreciate cold areas. Heat or inflammation is generally a result from hemorrhage, external or internal trauma, tendon or joint inflammation and/or infection. Conversely, cold may be seen with decreased circulation, non-active swelling such as edema or in the presence of obstruction of blood flow.
Equine Thermography Uses
Although most experienced horse owners are able to identify heat in a leg or foot, usually indicating inflammation, a pulled tendon or an abscess, there are often symptoms of discomfort or poor performance where the horse is showing no physical signs of injury. A human touch cannot identify changes in temperature of less than 2 degrees, however, a thermal camera can "see" and detect changes of less than 0.5 degree, making it easy to identify problem areas, where heat is not obvious to the touch. This is displayed as an instant, clear image on an LCD screen on the FLIR E40 camera, enabling a diagnosis to be made and treatment carried out.
Used extensively in the equine world since the 1996 Olympic Games, infrared thermal imaging inspections are a quick non-contact method of examining a horse to identify and locate the source of problems or injuries. Thermography as a science has many applications. For horses, thermography has 3 main benefits:
- Pre-purchase inspection or sale to confirm there are no "hidden" problems with the horse
- Check saddle fitting and rider balance
- Monitoring competition horses during training to ensure that no undue stress is placed on the horse which may result in a potential injury
- Locate the source of miscellaneous strains, sprains and injuries
- Identify damaged tendons, ligaments, Navicular, laminitis and the source of non specific lameness
- Musculoskeletal injuries
- Easily examine the horse for tooth and jaw problems
- Treatment Monitoring
- Monitor hoof maintenance and balance
- Monitor ongoing conditions to assess the level of improvement or deterioration during treatment
There are many applications for this technology in equine practice: early lameness detection, hoof balance, saddle fit, back soreness, and any lameness condition that may involve joints, muscles and/or tendons. As you can see it has a role in almost all aspects of soundness evaluation. The ability to diagnose a mild unevenness before it becomes an active clinical problem will be of immense benefit. There are many early soft tissue - tendon, muscle or ligament - injuries that are not apparent until they become more active and difficult to manage.
Hoof balance is a difficult area to appreciate in some horses, but an instability in how the foot contacts the ground can influence a horse's soundness. By using Thermography, "hotter" contact areas would indicate excessive pressure or an imbalance in certain parts of the foot. This may be of benefit to the farriers and for all of us when we are trying to discuss a condition that is not always obvious.
Thermography works as an excellent screening tool. Prior to a show or for a pre-purchase examination, the camera could be used to determine if there are any active areas, even if the horse is currently sound. We wouldn’t recommend that Thermography be used for anything more than screening during a pre-purchase as the rest of the exam plus radiographs will be necessary to validate any findings.
Thermal imaging can be used to detect active inflammation. For example, when a thermal picture was taken of a horse's hocks, the thermal image showed an increased accumulation of red in the left hock indicating active inflammation. This horse subsequently had the hocks injected and her unsoundness improved. Thermography was chosen because the unsoundness was mild and the x-rays did not indicate any obvious reason for this problem. Its use in the location of temperature variations between limbs or other areas on the body will be the most common role. Being able to quickly include or exclude a region during a lameness work-up will decrease the time spent on a diagnosis and allow for a more comprehensive approach to treatment. Frequently we will see a horse, for example, with a sore fetlock joint, but not fully appreciate the soreness in the suspensory ligament or maybe a hock soreness linked with a back problem. It may be easy to diagnose the primary or active problem, but to not fully appreciate the secondary problem that may have developed. By imaging other regions it's possible to see these less active areas that may not readily present themselves during a typical lameness work-up.
What Does Equine Infrared Thermography Detect?
Thermography does not only detect heat, but also the lack of heat, which makes it an excellent tool to locate nerve damage. In fact this technology can detect problems days, and even weeks before it becomes physically visible. It also detects these problems when masked by drugs. This provides you with the opportunity to treat or change the horse's routine, minimizing the chances of aggravating an injury, and possibly eliminating downtime. Back problems, subsolar and other abscesses, laminitis, arthritis, and tendonitis, stress fractures and injuries, are just some of the problems that can be detected in their very early stages using thermography. It shows us where to investigate further to find the underlying problem. Once treatment has been instituted, it shows us how effective the treatment is. And additionally, it helps you monitoring the animal athlete's body to see how well it is adapting to any training it is undergoing. Thus thermography can provide you with much needed advantage in the competition.
Saddle Fitting and Thermography
Thermographic image looking from hips forward to withers.
Thermographic image evaluating underside of saddle. Increased heat detected indicates increased saddle pressure and improper fit.
In the two images above, thermography is used to identify back inflammation and issues with saddle fit. In the left image there is an increase in heat output in the left hip and sacro-iliac region relative to the right side. Based on the depth of the hip area this would be considered a significant amount of heat output. Further forward of this there is a very localized area of inflammation (see the red area) that corresponds to excess saddle pressure. Checking this region with palpation would very likely indicate back soreness. The image on the right is an example of how thermography can be used to directly evaluate saddle fit. Just after a horse has been ridden, the saddle is removed and evaluated. As with examining a horse's back, direct imaging of the saddle may indicate where uneven pressure correlates to back soreness and saddle fit issues.
In the past, when there is difficulty locating a lameness through traditional methods, horses have been referred for procedures such as thermography or nuclear scans. Thermal Camera Rentals can provide you the diagnostic tools you need for service that previously would have only been available at larger, specialty centers. There still may be a need for nuclear scans, but an infrared camera for equine thermography can help you diagnose the majority of those difficult lameness cases.