J Can Chiropr Assoc 2015 (Jun); 59 (2): 157-164 ~ FULL TEXT
Barbara A. Mansholt, DC, MS, Robert D. Vining, DC,
Cynthia R. Long, PhD, Christine M. Goertz, DC, PhD
Associate Professor, Clinic,
Palmer College of Chiropractic
INTRODUCTION: A few spinal manipulation techniques use paraspinal surface thermography as an examination tool that informs clinical-decision making; however, inter-examiner reliability of this interpretation has not been reported. The purpose of this study was to report inter-examiner reliability for classifying cervical paraspinal thermographic findings.
METHODS: Seventeen doctors of chiropractic self-reporting a minimum of 2 years of experience using thermography classified thermographic scans into categories (full pattern, partial +, partial, partial -, and adaptation). Kappa statistics (k) were calculated to determine inter-examiner reliability.
RESULTS: Overall inter-examiner reliability was fair (k=0.43). There was good agreement for identifying full pattern (k=0.73) and fair agreement for adaptation (k=0.55). Poor agreement was noted in partial categories (k=0.05–0.22).
CONCLUSION: Inter-examiner reliability demonstrated fair to good agreement for identifying comparable (full pattern) and disparate (adaptation) thermographic findings; agreement was poor for those with moderate similarity (partial). Further research is needed to determine whether thermographic findings should be used in clinical decision-making for spinal manipulation.
From the FULL TEXT Article:
Doctors of chiropractic (DCs) use complex clinical decision-
making when determining where, when, and when
not to perform spinal manipulation.  Factors considered
may include the diagnosis, symptom severity, presence
of co-morbid conditions, patient preferences, and other
examination findings [2, 3] such as static or segmental motion
palpation, [4, 5] posture analysis, leg length analysis,  biomechanical interpretation of spinal radiographs, the
presence of spinal/paraspinal tenderness, and abnormal
muscle tone.  Some chiropractic spinal manipulation
techniques, particularly those focusing on upper cervical
manipulation, use thermographic and other diagnostic
instruments to provide primary information to determine
whether treatment should or should not occur.  The use of
unique diagnostic instrumentation is not new to the chiropractic
profession. B.J. Palmer, considered the “developer”
of chiropractic, used an instrument called the electroencephaloneuromentimpograph
and later, the neurocalometer.  The neurocalometer was the predecessor of the
current nervo-scope, which is still used by some practitioners
using the Gonstead technique system. [10, 11]
A few studies indicate that there may be some potential
for thermography to provide information suggestive of
underlying physiological processes  that may help inform
spinal manipulation decisions.  Roy reported changes in
paraspinal surface temperature (comparing one side to
the opposite side) using infrared thermographic methods
following spinal manipulation. [14, 15] These findings suggest
that paraspinal cutaneous and/or subcutaneous blood
perfusion may be altered following spinal manipulation.
However, without further study, it is unclear if these findings
represent specific physiological mechanisms initiated
by the manipulation or simply from normal changes
over time or from tissue perturbation.
One application of thermography used by some practitioners,
referred to as “pattern analysis,” is the interpretation
of a series of skin surface temperature recordings
obtained over the cervical spine. Similar thermographic
findings obtained several hours apart are thought to
suggest spinal dysfunction, which presumably contributes
to a diminished autonomic response to external environmental
cues resulting in muted adaptive changes in
cutaneous and/or subcutaneous blood flow.  The theory
behind this interpretation is based on the following
1) skin temperature can serve as an indirect gauge of autonomic function, 
2) small variations in skin temperature over time suggest that the
autonomic nervous system is appropriately functioning
by adapting to an ever-changing environment, [17, 18] and
3) normal or abnormal environmental adaptation can be estimated
by comparing sequential skin temperature measurements.
When an individual is “adapting” to their surroundings,
it is assumed that autonomic mechanisms are functioning
normally, resulting in subcutaneous blood flow
change over time, detectable with thermography.  Abnormal
spinal function (vertebral subluxation complex) is
thought to adversely impact spinal joints and neurological
function, and initiate a compensatory neurovascular response(
s) causing joint motion restriction, muscle contraction,
vasomotor changes, and localized tenderness. [20, 21]
Due to an impaired ability to maintain homeostasis over
nearby spinal regions, these changes can potentially result
in static thermographic findings.
A paraspinal thermographic “pattern” is determined
when multiple scans, obtained over a period of several
hours, reveal similar or identical temperature findings.
When this occurs, autonomic malfunction is assumed to
be caused by upper cervical spinal dysfunction and manipulative
treatment is then considered appropriate. If few
or no similarities exist between thermographic scans over
several hours, a static pattern cannot be designated and
treatment is usually considered unnecessary. 
Establishing the reliability of a measurement tool is a
necessary first step in determining whether information
gained from its use can be used in a clinically meaningful
way. Several authors have reported on the reliability
of surface thermography in a chiropractic setting. [18, 19, 23–26]
Though thermography appears to reliably measure temperature,
stable readings are dependent on strict environmental
control [27, 28] and a single paraspinal measurement
procedure has not yet been extensively tested, leading a
recent systematic review to conclude that evidence is unfavorable
for paraspinal skin temperature to be used to
locate the site of manipulation.  However, the literature
does not yet adequately address whether paraspinal skin
temperature readings can inform a clinician regarding
the need for spinal manipulation. Before that question
can be logically answered, it is first necessary to determine
if clinicians are able to interpret paraspinal thermographic
findings consistently. In other words, what is
the inter-examiner reliability with respect to interpreting
paraspinal thermographic findings?
The purpose of this study was to determine the inter-examiner
reliability of interpreting paraspinal thermographic
findings. Study findings are needed to help determine
whether thermography can be a tool that informs clinical
decision-making for spinal manipulation and to provide
useful data to chiropractic educational institutions and
practitioners seeking information that further informs evidence-
based clinical practice.
Institutional review board approval for this project occurred
in June 2011 through Palmer College of Chiropractic,
IRB Assurance # X2011-6-15-M. The use of de-identified
study data was determined exempt according to 45
CFR 46.101(b)(4); informed consent was obtained from
the DCs who participated. The study was conducted from
August of 2011 through January of 2012. This study
complies with reporting standards as recommended by
the Guidelines for Reporting Reliability and Agreement
Studies (GRRAS). 
This study used thermographic scans obtained in a separate
clinical trial conducted to determine the effectiveness
of upper cervical chiropractic manipulation on stage
1 hypertensive patients during February through June of
2010, NCT 01020435.  Paraspinal cervical scans were
performed using the Tytron C-3000 (Titronics Research &
Development, Oxford, Iowa), as follows:
1) participants were instructed to avoid caffeine for 2 hours and tobacco
for 4 hours prior to assessment;
2) upon arrival to the study site, participants acclimated in a room maintained
at 70–75 degrees for approximately 15 minutes;
3) during the scan, participants sat with their head flexed slightly to
allow exposure of the cervical area with the feet flat and
hands resting on the thighs; and
4) the examiner moved
hair away from the posterior neck (when present) with one
hand, held the paraspinal thermographic scanning instrument
with the other hand, and obtained measurements between
the vertebral prominence (T1 area) and the base of
the occiput. The entire procedure lasted approximately 30
The resulting scan image appeared on a computer
screen and consisted of 3 lines. The left line (or channel)
represented the temperature gradient on the left paraspinal
region from T1 to occiput; the right line (or channel)
represented the temperature gradient on the right paraspinal region; and the center line (Delta) graphically displayed
the difference between the right and left readings.
Prior to recruiting DC participants, de-identified scan
pairings (2 scans from a single participant with at least 24
hours between scans), viewable on a computer monitor,
were randomly selected. The final set included 17 scan
pairings, which DC participants reviewed and classified.
Participant recruitment and eligibility
DCs self-reporting a minimum of 2 years of experience
working with the Tytron software and using pattern analysis
as a primary treatment indicator on a majority of their
patients were eligible for this study. DCs were recruited
at a chiropractic college event during a technique review
class – a class that emphasizes the theories and application
of thermography and pattern analysis. Knowledge of
the study spread by word of mouth, and additional DCs
volunteered over a period of six (6) months. Chiropractic
college faculty DCs involved in teaching or research of
pattern analysis or Tytron software were eligible if they
met the above criteria. Basic demographic information
was collected to determine eligibility.
Participant interpretation of scans
Interested DCs completed the basic demographic survey
to determine eligibility. When eligibility was confirmed,
interested DC participants signed an informed consent
document. DC participants were instructed to classify
each scan pairing (left channel readings, delta readings,
and right channel readings) into one of the following categories
(see Figure 1):
- Pattern: 3 lines are the same
- Partial (+): 2 lines are the same and the 3rd line is similar
- Partial: 2 lines are the same
- Partial (-): 1 line is the same
- Adaptation: 3 lines are different
Lines in each column represent temperature readings over the cervical spine.
Left column = left cervical spine region,
Right column = right cervical spine region,
Center column = average of left and right readings.
Blue lines represent a static thermographic reading “pattern” obtained over the cervical spine (established by more than 1 reading over a ≥ 24 hour period) and overlaid with a current reading represented by green, red, or orange lines.
Categories are based
on subjectively comparing a patient’s designated “pattern” (blue lines) with current findings (green, red, or
Examples of scans representing categories used in this study are displayed:
Adaptation = completely dissimilar,
Partial (–)= modest similarity,
Partial = moderate similarity,
Partial (+) mostly similar,
Full Pattern = virtually identical.
Participating DCs either met in person or corresponded
via e-mail and telephone with the lead author (BAM). All
were provided the study objectives, instructions for participants
and categorical classification definitions. If participants
completed the study in person, they were guided
through the Tytron software, viewed the scan pairings on
the Tytron software, and categorized the scan pairings on
the data collection form. The remainder of DCs received
an Adobe® PDF file of scan pairings with written instructions
and the scan analysis data collection form. DC participants
designated each scan into one of five categories,
and returned the data collection form via e-mail. Each
participant viewed 17 unique scan pairings.
Data Entry and Analysis
Both the scan pairings and the DC raters were samples
of convenience. The data were double key-entered and
exported to and analyzed in SPSS for Windows (Version
17.0.0, SPSS, Inc. Somers, NY). The multi-rater unweighted
Kappa statistic  and 95% confidence intervals
based on Fleiss’ corrected standard error  were calculated
overall and for each of the 5 categories. Because SPSS
does not calculate Kappa and associated confidence intervals
for the multi-rater case, we used a publicly available
SPSS macro.  Kappa statistics (k) were interpreted according
to Fleiss: k>0.75 was considered excellent, 0.40
≤ k ≤ 0.75 was fair to good agreement, and k <0.40 was
poor or less than expected by chance. 
Seventeen DCs participated in the study, reporting use of
the Tytron software a mean of 7.7 years (SD 4.5). Five
DCs viewed scan pairings in person; 12 viewed scan pairings
and returned the scan analysis form via e-mail. DCs
reported using Tytron analysis as a primary clinical decision-
making indicator on a mean of 82% of patients.
While practicing DCs used various spinal manipulative
techniques, 14 primarily focused their treatment on the
upper cervical region, 7 of whom reported using upper
cervical manipulative procedures exclusively. Five DCs
held chiropractic college faculty positions (Table 1).
Overall inter-examiner reliability was fair, k=0.43
(95% CI 0.38, 0.47) (Table 2). Reliability coefficients
were highest for the individual categories of full pattern
(k=0.73) and adaptation (k=0.55), and lowest for partial
To our knowledge, this is the first study investigating
inter-examiner reliability of interpreting thermographic
pattern scans as taught and practiced by a few chiropractic
techniques (e.g., Toggle Recoil or Blair) focused exclusively
on the cervical spine. Though paraspinal thermography
has been studied in chiropractic settings, strong
evidence demonstrating how it can be best used clinically
is currently lacking, in part because of wide variations in
how these findings are interpreted to relate to abnormal
One method of interpretation compares paraspinal skin
temperature at single vertebral levels from the occiput to the sacrum, i.e., segmental analysis. Findings potentially
indicate subsurface hyperemia from abnormal physiology
such as unilateral hypertonic muscle contraction or local
inflammation; [12, 23] another method compares the temperature
of the right and left mastoid fossa (slightly anterior
and inferior to the mastoid process) as an indicator of general
health.36 Hart investigated paraspinal thermographic
patterns and thermographic mastoid fossa temperature
differences with patient health perceptions. However,
no definitive conclusions were reached regarding a relationship
between mastoid fossa temperature and health
perceptions. [36–38] Hart also recently proposed a statistical
approach to tracking a patient’s paraspinal thermographic
mastoid fossa findings, which has not yet been validated.
 Brown explored the association between mastoid
fossa temperature findings and paraspinal thermographic
patterns, concluding that mastoid fossa asymmetry does
not necessarily co-exist with paraspinal thermographic
patterns.  Roy identified statistically significant temperature
changes at the L5 vertebral level after a lumbar side
posture manipulation when compared to a sham treatment. 
Thermographic pattern interpretation differs significantly
from “segmental” analysis because it assumes the
ability to adapt to a changing environment (homeostasis)
will result in disparate sequential time-delayed findings.
According to this theory, these differences suggest normal
physiological function and thus, no need for treatment.
A patient’s “pattern” is established when multiple scans,
obtained over a period of several hours, reveal similar or
identical temperature findings. Subsequent readings are
compared to this “thumbprint” pattern to determine the
need for additional treatment. If completely similar, the
patient is considered to be non-adapting, and treatment to
the upper cervical spine is indicated (see example “pattern,”
Figure 1). If completely dissimilar, no treatment is
indicated (see example, “adaptation,” Figure 1). Partial
categories are defined to clarify readings on the continuum
between the two clear readings – perhaps where many
clinical presentations fall. When a “partial” reading appears
closer to the patient’s pattern (but not completely
similar), a practitioner may rely on a few additional clinical
findings (static or motion palpation findings, postural
abnormalities, tenderness, or muscle tone) to determine
the need for treatment. Conversely, when a “partial” reading
appears closer to adaptation, a practitioner may determine clinical findings are present. Note “partial +,” “partial,”
and “partial –,” in Figure 1. This study found inter-examiner
reliability for identifying or interpreting “partial”
patterns to be very poor. Thus we recommend reducing to
three categories (pattern, partial, and adaptation).
If reliability regarding this interpretation classification
system is established, further investigation is needed
regarding its validity. With this pattern interpretation
theory, a patient’s adjustment is considered “successful”
if the consistent static readings (pattern) begin to change
after treatment. Future studies should focus on whether
pattern readings do change after treatment, as well as
whether pattern vs. adaptation readings correlate with patient
Thermography provides relatively reliable and objective
information compared with other measures used
in a clinical exam such as motion palpation.4 However,
the results of this study indicate that there is substantial
subjectivity in interpreting thermographic findings creating
a challenge with utilizing the information gained in a
consistent and clinically meaningful manner. Thus, largely
due to the need for additional evidence, there does not
appear to be a consensus on how thermographic findings
should influence clinical decisions regarding spinal manipulation.
This study identified “full” or “adaptation” reliability
as good and fair, respectively. If the use of this instrument
in education and practice will continue, research should
focus on the validity of its use. Further, clinical outcomes
based on this form of clinical decision-making have not
yet been reported, and more research is needed to determine
if inter-examiner reliability can be enhanced (by increasing
the participation, providing more rigorous standardized
training, and reducing the number of category
classifications) or whether clinical decisions based on this
technology are associated with clinical improvement.
This study used a convenience sample consisting of
self-reported experienced DCs in the use of thermographic
pattern analysis. However, there are currently no criteria
other than years of experience by which to determine
relative expertise. The method by which each DC viewed
the scans (i.e., consecutive on PDF v. guided through
software) may have had an effect on the results of their interpretation. Future studies may want to include DCs who use this method, regardless of how often, and those
who do not. Study findings from a sample size of 17 also
limits the generalizability of results. Further, as the scans
were performed on patients being assessed for stage 1
hypertension, it may be argued that the scans were not
representative of typical chiropractic patients.
Overall inter-examiner reliability of thermographic findings
was fair. Although the reliability of those designated
as “pattern” (completely similar to a reference scan)
was good, reliability of those designated as “adaptation”
(completely dissimilar to a reference scan) was fair, and
there was poor agreement for scans with partial similarity.
These findings indicate that other clinical findings should
be relied upon to determine treatment necessity. Further
research is needed to better understand if treatment decisions
based on thermographic findings are related to clinical
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