DURHAM, N.C. — For many people over age 70, working with their hands can be painful.
afflicts 21 million Americans.
A study at Duke University Medical Center shows there may be a way to detect and treat the disease earlier.
Osteoarthritis is a painful, crippling disease that can involve multiple joints including the back, knees and hands.
"In these joints right here, they would hurt. I can't open jars. I don't have a lot of grip," study participant Frances Cottingham said.
Cottingham was part of a Duke University study which measured heat given off by inflamed arthritic joints. Scientists have tried to measure that heat before, but thermal imaging machines could not deliver reliable results.
"Up until now, we've really been limited to treating people with late-stage X-ray changes, because that's where we've been looking," Duke's Dr. Virginia Kraus said.
The Duke study confirms inflammation is a symptom of osteoarthritis.
Thermal scans show joints cool off as the disease worsens. The study compared X-ray results to the new thermal scans. The study found X-rays gave unreliable results at early stages where thermal scans detected active disease.
"As we gain information of early disease, I think we'll be able to intervene earlier when there will be more chance making a difference, before you get these late stage X-ray changes," Krause said.
Researchers are studying the heat scanner's usefulness in other illnesses with inflammation, including cancer. It is relatively inexpensive, noninvasive and safer than X-rays.
"The nice thing is it's not radioactive, it's very portable and it takes only a few minutes," Krause said. "So it could give you a picture that you wouldn't otherwise have as readily."
Researchers do not believe thermal scans will replace X-rays, but will be one more tool in diagnosing disease and monitoring therapy.