Can Laser Spine Surgery relieve my neck or back pain?
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Can Laser Spine Surgery relieve my neck or back pain?
Laser Spine Surgery
If you’ve been searching for surgical interventions to manage back pain, then you’ve probably stumbled across laser spine surgery. The name conjures up images of futuristic beams of light with the high precision and scientific accuracy to repair whatever ails your spine.
As we will see—when it comes to the spine at least—this isn’t exactly the case. Although to be fair, lasers have had important uses in medical technology for decades.
In fact, as early as the 1960s, dermatologists used lasers to remove cancerous skin lesions like melanoma. Soon thereafter, other medical fields—including ophthalmology, oncology, and cosmetic surgery—began using the laser to assist in various soft tissue treatments.
By the 1980s, orthopedic surgeons began to incorporate lasers into spinal surgery. With the advent and success of LASIK eye surgery, this seemed like a practical extension. If the laser could correct problems with something as delicate and complex as the human eye, surely the laser would prove its usefulness elsewhere. But, this hasn’t exactly been the case in the realm of spine surgery. Let’s take a closer look at the role of lasers in spine surgery and the surprising data regarding their efficacy (or lack thereof).
In actuality, the term “laser” is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. But, what does that actually mean in layman’s terms? Simply put, surgeons use a focused beam of light to generate enough heat to slice through tissues, remove tumors, and cauterize blood vessels during surgical procedures to reduce blood loss.
Doctors employ several different types of lasers to aid in a variety of procedures. For example, one of the most commonly known laser surgeries is LASIK eye surgery. Unlike laser spine surgery, LASIK has a successful track record with helping numerous individuals achieve their desired result—in this case, vastly improved vision. Harnessing laser technology, an ophthalmologist precisely changes the shape of the cornea—a transparent tissue at the front of the eye—thus correcting vision issues with refractive error.
So, why doesn’t this technique translate into successful spine surgery outcomes? Let’s first take a quick look at how doctors are currently integrating lasers into spine surgery.
The Use of Lasers in Spine Surgery
The most common use of lasers spine surgery involves the removal of a disc, a process known as disc ablation. However, surgeons can also use lasers to destroy nerve fibers that carry pain signals from the body to the brain. For example, those who suffer from a pinched nerve or failed back syndrome can sometimes achieve pain relief when a surgeon deadens dysfunctional nerves with the heat emitted from a laser.
During laser spine surgery, the doctor uses small, puncture-like incisions to gain access to the affected area. In most cases, your surgeon will make these incisions in your back (referred to as a posterior approach). Using very small, tube-shaped instruments, the doctor works around major muscle groups and ligaments, resulting in less damage to the body. Employing an endoscope—aka, a tiny camera—the doctor pinpoints the exact region in which to use the laser. Then, the heat generated from the laser burns away any troublesome tissues or inflamed nerves.
In rare instances, laser spine surgery may be appropriate for you when combined with other surgical procedures.
Is Laser Spine Surgery Effective?
Despite marketing claims made to the contrary, research offers a much more sobering reality about the efficacy of laser spine surgery. In fact, the Journal of the AAOS (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons) performed a meta-analysis of studies extending as far back as the 1980s. The journal concluded that there was no clinical or preclinical data to suggest that lasers offered significant benefits over other forms of spine surgery.
For example, a large prospective, randomized, and non-blinded clinical trial compared laser discectomy (removal of a damaged disc) to more traditional forms of microdiscectomies. Those who underwent the more traditional procedures had earlier symptom recovery and less need for subsequent surgeries. In fact, those who underwent laser surgery actually had a 50% likelihood of requiring revision spine surgery.
In addition, some smaller retrospective case studies looked at how lasers were used in interbody fusions, discectomies, and other procedures. No significant differences were reported for patient outcomes using laser surgery compared to traditional surgery.
In fact, employing lasers may actually be more dangerous than other surgical tools. Such safety concerns include thermal injury to nearby tissues like disc cartilage, nerves, and endplate bones. Needless to say, a simple mistake caused by surgeons wielding lasers can lead to painful and lasting complications.
Are You Being Mislead About Laser Spine Surgery?
With no real advantages compared to other spinal surgeries but the very real risk of injuries to nearby tissues, you are probably wondering what all the internet “hype” is all about.
Sadly, some practitioners prey on a patient’s ignorance of laser spine surgery and their desperate need to relieve pain and other symptoms. Those advertising laser spine surgery may not clearly present the facts. As a result, an unknowing patient believes that the doctor places a machine above the body and somehow a laser detects and corrects spine problems.
As you’ve learned from this article, that is not how lasers work. Laser spine surgery is actually a minimally invasive procedure that requires an incision to reach the affected area. That being said, there are other minimally invasive ways in which an orthopedic surgeon can treat spinal conditions with the same, or even better, results.
Alternatives to Laser Spine Surgery
Over the years, advancements in medical technology have made it easier to gain access to and work on the spine. Equipment continues to get smaller, easier to use, and more effective. For example, the incision used during some laser spine surgeries is about the size of a quarter. In contrast, surgeons using a small camera known as an endoscope may only need to make an incision the size of a dime.
Minimally invasive procedures using this equipment result in less bleeding and damage to the surrounding muscle and soft tissue. This means less pain after surgery, quicker recovery times, and smaller scars.
In addition, lasers use a straight beam. This can make it harder when working at certain angles and corners. Lasers are also ineffective at removing thickened ligaments or bone spurs—commonly responsible for cervical or lumbar stenosis. Using more appropriate equipment, your surgeon has a better chance of successfully treating your damaged disc, radiculopathy, or bone spurs.
Let Us Help You Separate Fact from Fiction
The Advanced Spine Center uses only the safest methods to treat conditions in and around the spine. Our team takes the time to get to know you and the conditions that cause your pain. While surgery can be effective in treating some spinal conditions, we know that conservative approaches can also be beneficial. This is why we use a diverse team of experts that help you find the best care possible for your specific condition. We want to empower you with the information to make the best choices about your health.
If you do need surgery, our doctors specialize in the latest minimally invasive techniques and technology. In fact, our orthopedic surgeons have been recognized by New Jersey Monthly Magazine as “Top Doctors” in orthopedics.
Are you ready to once again start enjoying a life free of pain? Our team at the Advanced Spine Center wants to help you do so. Don’t waste another day missing out on the things that you love to do. Schedule a consultation today by calling (973) 538-0900.