Arthritis is a broad category of joint diseases that tend to be painful and progressive, leading to disability. One variety, osteoarthritis, is a degenerative joint disease that affects older people, especially in fingers, knees, hips, and other joints that have been subjected to years of stress. The World Health Organization estimates that 9.6% of all men and 18.0% of women over 60 have symptoms of this one disease. There is no cure, but treatment can help slow the onset of the symptoms. As a result, the sooner the condition can be detected, the sooner treatments can be applied.
X-ray imaging generally is not effective until the advanced stages of arthritis. Ultrasound can detect increased blood flow that is a result of the joint inflammation, but it is not able to identify the new blood vessels that are created in response to the inflamation. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering have come up with a third solution that uses light and sound. Very brief laser pulses of different wavelengths, which heats the tissues slightly, causing them to expand. This expansion can be detected acoustically. Inflamed tissue absorbs different light wavelengths than healthy tissue, and comparing the results from different wavelengths can identify the inflamed regions better than X-ray or ultrasound.
The system creates a 3D scan of the fingers of soft tissue as well as bone, cartilage, and connective tissue such as tendons and ligaments. This imaging helps physicians pinpoint areas of inflammation, and track the progress of the condition over time. This new technology won’t cure arthritis, but it may help patients live without pain or losing mobility for many more years.