Laser spine surgery is a type of surgery performed alongside minimally invasive techniques to relieve pain related to various structures directly or indirectly supporting the spine. It’s an alternative to traditional open surgery for patients looking to minimize post-surgery downtime. For certain spinal conditions, it’s a procedure that often provides welcome relief from chronic pain.
Types of Spine Surgery Performed
Laser spine surgery is primarily performed for one of two reasons. It may be done to take pressure off nerves near the spine. Nerve compression is a common cause of most spine-related pain, often resulting in radiating nerve pain felt in shoulders, arms, hips, or legs. Laser surgery may also be performed to restore stability to the spine itself without the need for a spinal fusion.
Minimally Invasive Decompression
Decompression surgery is performed if pressure is being placed on nerve roots in or around the spine. Minimally invasive laser spine decompression is done with small (less than an inch) incisions. Tubes are inserted to access the spine and relieve the pressure on nerves. This may involve removing part or all of a spinal disc, bone growths (osteophytes), or the back part of the vertebra (lamina). Decompression may be recommended to ease pain related to:
- Lumbar (lower back) spinal stenosis
- Cervical (neck) spinal stenosis
- Pinched nerves
A foraminotomy is a type of decompression surgery that enlarges the passageway where nerve roots exit the spine (foramina). The increased space relieves pressure on nerves.
A discectomy is performed to remove part of a disc that’s causing nerve compression. Tiny cameras are used to guide the surgeon to remove the protruding disc material.
Minimally Invasive Stabilization
Minimally invasive stabilization surgery may be necessary if removing the disc that is causing the compression on nerves will make the spine unstable. The disc is replaced with an implant (artificial disc) to restore stability. Versions of laser-assisted stabilization surgery include:
- Anterior cervical discectomy fusion
- Posterior cervical fusion
- Transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF)
- Lateral lumbar interbody fusion
Sacroiliac Joint Fusion
The sacroiliac joint in the pelvis near the lowest part of the spine is sometimes a source of radiating nerve pain. A minimally invasive correction involves the “fusing” together of the sacrum and pelvis to stabilize the joint.
How Laser Spine Surgery is Performed
Instead of a scalpel, a laser is used to make any necessary cuts when laser spine surgery is performed. Heat from the laser is what causes the cutting of the tissues. Incisions are made along natural planes, or pathways, for muscles to avoid unnecessary stress to tissues. Muscles are not cut, so there is less risk of unintentional damage and post-surgery healing occurs faster.
Even though some cutting is done with lasers, some incisions will be required to insert the laser. Small incisions will also be made to insert special instruments needed to complete the procedure that is being performed. During surgery, the surgeon will be guided by a small camera that is inserted at the surgery site.
Because of the way laser spine surgery is performed, many operations can be safely performed as convenient outpatient procedures. Some initial rest or modification of normal movements is usually required before fully returning to normal activities.
Are You a Good Candidate?
Disc herniation and nerve compression due to a narrow spinal space (stenosis) are just a few conditions that may respond well to procedures used during laser spine surgery. Preferred candidates also typically have not had success with conservative treatments such as stretching, exercising, chiropractic care, and the use of NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory drugs) and pain medications. You may also benefit from laser spine surgery if you have already tried traditional open surgery and have not experienced meaningful results.
Spine surgery, in one form or another, has been performed for more than 5,000 years. While laser spine surgery does not date that far back, lasers have been used successfully in surgical procedures for many decades. It’s important to keep in mind that laser spine surgery won’t correct all possible issues involving the backbone, especially if there is not a clear source of pain. If you have a condition likely to respond well to such techniques, however, laser spine surgery may provide relief.