An alternative to traditional open surgery, laser spine surgery is a minimally invasive approach to correcting various issues with the spine or its supporting discs, joints, and soft tissues. It’s a type of surgery that can be performed on all areas of the spine, including the lumbar (lower back), thoracic (upper- and middle-back), and cervical (neck) regions. The purpose of outpatient laser spine surgery is to target the source of a patient’s pain in a way that’s as non-disruptive as possible to surrounding tissues. The result is often fewer risks and a shorter recovery time.
How it Works
Traditional open surgery typically involves long incisions and the need to cut through muscles and other soft tissues to access the affected part of the spine. Laser spine surgery is a less invasive procedure that uses small incisions, some less than an inch in length. Because of the way the spine is accessed, there is less disruption to nearby tissues, which often means fewer surgical risks for the patient and not as much time required to heal.
Lasers are used to cut tissues instead of a scalpel. Incisions, while small, are needed to insert the laser and target the appropriate area of the spine. While lasers are able to cut through soft tissues in a way that’s less disruptive, other instruments need to be used to remove bone and tougher tissues such as ligaments. Minimally invasive techniques that include the use of special devices with cameras attached and other instruments are often a part of laser spine surgery.
Conditions That Can Be Treated
The most common spine procedures performed are laminectomies (removal of part of the vertebra covering the spinal canal) and microdiscectomies. Both of these procedures involve treating spinal discs. With minimally invasive decompression surgery, disc material that’s placing pressure on nerves is removed with as a laser-assisted procedure. In some cases, a stabilizing implant will need to be inserted if full disc removal is necessary with a minimally invasive stabilization procedure. This type of surgery can also be done with the use of smaller incisions and dilating tubes to avoid significant muscle disruption. Some of the conditions that may be treated with laser spine surgery and minimally invasive techniques include:
- Degenerative disc disease
- Nerve compression due to bone spurs (osteophytes)
- Back or neck pain with a clearly identified source
- Bulging disc (disc protrusion)
- Issues related to arthritis of the spine (facet disease)
- Spine pain linked to a pinched nerve that’s causing radiating pain felt in the arms, legs, or shoulders
- Spinal stenosis
Preferred Candidates for Laser Spine Surgery
Patients will undergo an evaluation to determine if laser spine surgery is an appropriate treatment method. This assessment often involves image tests to identify the specific source of pain. Nerve condition studies may also be performed when nerve-related spine pain is being experienced. A preferred candidate for laser spine surgery is also a patient who has not experienced meaningful relief with conservative treatments such as the use of anti-inflammatory and pain medications, various forms of physical therapy, and chiropractic manipulations. Laser spine surgery may also be an option when:
- Spine-related pain has reached a point where it’s chronic (lasting 4-6 months or longer)
- Quality of life is significantly affected
- Open surgery has already been attempted without positive results
- Patients have no serious underlying health issues such as uncontrolled diabetes and chronic high blood pressure that may present added risks during surgery
Potential Benefits for Patients
The most-appreciated benefit of laser spine surgery for patients is the ability to recover faster following the procedure. Since incisions are small, there is a reduced risk of infection as wounds heal. Many patients also report experiencing less post-surgery discomfort, which may decrease the need for the prolonged use of pain medications after surgery. Most procedures can also be done on an outpatient basis, leading to the potential for patients to save on medical expenses.
Results with laser spine surgery will vary based on what specific part of the spine is involved. Factors such as a patient’s overall health will also play a role in the outcome, although patients are screened in advance to determine if this type of surgery is appropriate for their situation. Patients who have had minimally invasive procedures performed as outpatient laser surgery may benefit from follow-up physical therapy to strengthen spine-supporting muscles and improve flexibility and range of motion.