Laser spine surgery refers to a procedure that relieves certain symptoms like back pain by decreasing the pressure of a compressed nerve in the spine or by stabilizing the spine. This kind of surgery may involve removing a herniated part of a spinal disc, or it may be used to remove bone spurs or spinal growths. For the procedure, the physician uses what is essentially a beam of light to cut tissue away. A number of conditions could warrant laser spine surgery as a course of treatment.
How Laser Spine Surgery Works
Standard spine surgery uses scalpels and similar precision cutting tools to open the back with a long or wide incision. This allows surgeons to pull aside the muscles to obtain a good view of what is wrong so that they can fix it.
Laser spine surgery, however, uses a tiny incision of no more than a couple of inches, which reduces the amount of severed tissue that must be healed. This procedure results in a smaller scar, but it naturally limits what surgeons can see during the procedure, which most doctors consider important. Larger cuts enable a full view of the working section.
Many people confuse laser surgery as minimally invasive, but such a surgery usually has a tiny endoscope to view in the body, a small incision and standard techniques without the use of lasers. For instance, surgeons at UCM already perform minimally invasive spinal surgery with 3D-imaging and endoscopic cameras, reducing the need for traditional surgery and the healing process that follows. However, they do not use lasers in their approach.
The surgery is different when using lasers as doctors remove the sources of pain and decreasing points of the discs between the vertebrae to relieve pressure through a process known as ablation. Laminotomy refers to the procedure that removes some of the disc “meat,” decompresses the size of the disc and removes some nearby bone spurs, reducing the pressure that is put on the tissues and the spine.
The laser treatments are said to help with herniated discs, bone spurs and spinal stenosis, a condition in which the area by the spinal column has narrowed and is creating a considerable amount of pressure. While decompression is known to relieve the pain and the problems with the discs, there is no evidence that suggests burning away disc mass with lasers is any more effective—or even equally effective. However, the non-laser minimally invasive procedure has proven successful.
If there is persistent back pain or pain resulting from an injury, it is best to seek assistance from a neurological specialist or an orthopedic physician. It is not necessarily the best course of action to get a single consult and to seek out a laser spine clinic right off the bat.
The premise of laser spine surgery is that it will let surgeons fix damage to the spine while minimizing damage to the other areas of the body. The lasers are said to be precise and can easily remove damaged discs without causing bleeding in the tissues. It can certainly be an appealing option due to the use of a basic anesthetic, allowing patients to be awake but comfortable, not to mention the lack of a giant incision or lengthy recovery time.
Of course, not every condition is eligible to be treated with laser spinal surgery. For example, it is not possible to cut through the pone, so it is not possible to help all patients who are experiencing spinal stenosis. It is also possible to accidentally damage the nerve root with the laser beam when treating another condition. As such, it is advised to have a second opinion before undergoing the procedure.
Each procedure will last about an hour, and the recovery time is minimal; most patients undergo the procedure and are back on their feet after just a few hours. Laser surgery is also less intrusive than traditional surgery and may include less risk to essential muscles.
Because it is a fairly new procedure, there are risks that come with laser surgery. Some patients have experienced damaged bowels as a result of a failed surgery while others still have had no results after the procedure. There have also been several lawsuits toward centers providing laser spine surgery. For instance, The St. Petersburg Times of Florida detailed a number of lawsuits at a local center for its laser procedures.
Additionally, the procedure can be very expensive and is usually not covered by an insurance plan. The minimum cost for the average surgery is about $30,000, and the number only grows from that point.
Minimally invasive surgery certainly holds promise for recovery and minimal pain, but because it is a new procedure, it accompanies a certain degree of uncertainty. It is also a very technical procedure that requires a heavy amount of training to avoid complications, which can include infection, nerve injury or inadequate decompression.
Which Procedure is Better?
Currently, the long-term effects of laser surgery are not well studied; assessments are still going on. The short-term success has been established, and it is known that there is less recovery time to get back to work. There is no current proof that it is the better procedure at the moment, however.
Laser spinal surgery is a very technical procedure that requires heavily training the OR staff and the surgeon, which is one reason why there are few hospitals offering this kind of procedure. In addition, the equipment required to perform the procedures in a safe and effective manner is considerably expensive.
Additionally, the success rates for laser surgery vary about as much as the number of insurance companies that are willing to provide coverage. Some patients find relief and recommend the surgery to others while some experience success only to have regression later on. Others still have the procedure and wind up with internal injuries or worse problems than before.
If there is one thing that can be agreed upon as far as laser surgery is required, it is the fact that major overseers have not been promoting laser use for important spinal surgeries. If the majority of chronic back pain needs no surgical procedure as treatment, as is supported by the NIH, then why do outpatient back surgeries prove popular with the patients?
Whether it is good marketing or the promise of a quick fix, it is worth talking with a doctor for a trusted consultation before looking to get burned.