Laser spine surgery.
The very description conjures images of the latest space-age technology coming to the operating room.
But that’s not exactly the case, says Neurosurgery One spine expert Jason McGowan, MD.
“Lasers aren’t used in surgery the way people imagine,” Souslian says. “It’s not Star Wars.”
A laser is a focused light beam that is powerful enough to be used for cutting tissues. Laser technology is used in many types of medical procedures, including eye surgery, tumor removal, and cosmetic procedures.
But often, the term “laser surgery” is used to describe what may, in fact, be minimally invasive spinal surgery, McGowan says.
True lasers aren’t used in most surgical procedures, a fact that even centers that market their laser surgery approach acknowledge. “Lasers are not used to cut through bone or to make incisions,” Souslian says. “In the majority of procedures, it’s a thermal device.”
According to the website Spine-health.com, that site’s collection of numerous peer-reviewed articles does not include any on laser spine surgery, “as it is not an accepted spine procedure.”
A Minimally Invasive Option
In the traditional, open approach to spine surgery, the surgeon must cut muscle from the spine. The process can damage surrounding soft tissue, which can result in pain and longer hospital stays. An alternative to that approach is a minimally invasive procedure, in which the incision is smaller, and the surgeon uses a tool to separate muscle fibers and gain access to the site of the pain. Because the muscles aren’t cut away, damage to the surrounding area is minimal, patients generally experience less pain, and the recovery time is often shorter.
The idea of “laser” surgery may appeal to potential patients because it seems to imply a rapid recovery. But Souslian points out that with the advanced techniques he uses at Neurosurgery One (formerly South Denver Neurosurgery), patients typically go home the day of surgery, and with these types of minimally invasive procedures, can even shower the day after surgery because incisions are closed with adhesive rather than stitches.
When Lasers Might Be Used in Spine Surgery
A laser potentially could be used to heat and shrink spinal disc tissue. But because spinal discs lie next to nerve roots, there is potential for heat generated by the laser to damage the nerve.
However, there are some spinal procedures in which a laser could be used, including:
- Removing tumors from the spinal cord
- Shrinking disc material around a nerve
Laser spine surgery can also refer to the use of a thermal device, McGowan says, in procedures such as facet thermal ablation. Facet joints, located on the back of the spine, allow the spine to bend and move. Arthritis in the facet joints can restrict movement and make it painful. In a thermal ablation procedure, a laser is used to deaden the nerves in the facet joint that are being irritated by the inflammation of arthritis.
The bottom line, McGowan says, is that while laser surgery may sound like a painless, leading-edge alternative to surgery, the fact is that while lasers can be effective for some procedures, they aren’t necessary to achieve faster recoveries and successful results. To help facilitate faster recovery after spine surgery, Neurosurgery One uses a unique program called Enhanced Recovery After Spine Surgery.