By Vamsi Kancherla, MD
Laser spine surgery—we hear more about it every day. But what is it really? In this edition of Partners in Health, we share more about this treatment tool and answer common questions about it.
What is laser spine surgery?
A laser is merely a tool (like a scalpel, burr, etc.) used in performing minimally invasive or open spine surgery. It can:
- Help make necessary cuts (rather than using the traditional scalpel)
- Aid in removing and/or shrinking tumors and/or disc material around the spinal cord
Is there any medical evidence for the use of lasers in spine surgery?
When used safely, lasers may play a very small role in minimally invasive or open spine surgery. There is no scientific evidence in well-respected medical journals to suggest that lasers are critical and/or useful in the vast majority of spine surgeries.
Can lasers be harmful?
Yes. A laser is a straight beam of light that is ill-suited for removing lesions hiding around corners. The ability to navigate angles safely is an important feature of the traditional scalpel. Because nerves are often tucked into narrow anatomic structures, a straight beam of light, like a laser, can accidentally injure a nerve, causing permanent neurologic problems. The heat from a laser can sometimes be transmitted to adjacent anatomical structures and also damage nerves.
Can lasers be helpful?
Very few conditions require the use of a laser. But in certain areas of surgery, lasers have been helpful. For instance, in lipomyelomeningocele surgery (removal of fatty tissue that is pressing on the spinal cord unnaturally and dangerously) the laser can be a useful tool. However, its role in the surgery is small.
Myth 1: Laser Spine Surgery is Medically Recognized
Laser spine surgery is not readily accepted in the medical community. It is not a topic of discussion among medical professionals at meetings of the North American Spine Society and the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Myth 2: Laser Spine Surgery is Affordable
Because the technology is not clinically accepted and has not been proven, laser spine surgery is typically not covered by health insurance. As a result, procedures have been known to add up to $20,000 to $50,000 in out-of-pocket costs.
Myth 3: Laser Spine Surgery is Effective
Commercials for laser spine surgery often promise significant relief with less risk of complications and shorter recovery times. The truth is that it has not been proven what can actually be accomplished with a laser. Laser surgery is not the same as minimally invasive back surgery, which does produce results. And pain does not show up on X-rays or MRIs. This means that even if pain goes away, it can be hard to prove whether the surgery cured the pain or the pain just went away on its own.
When considering minimally invasive spine surgery options, ask yourself a few important questions:
- Does the practice or institution you are considering teach courses on the use of its technique at national spine meetings?
- Is this procedure something that other respected surgeons have adopted?
If the answer to these questions is “no,” you may want to investigate other options.
Resurgens Spine Center • Non-surgical & Surgical Spine Care • 23 Convenient Atlanta Locations • Resurgens.com/Spine