Laser Spine Surgery: What You Should Know

If you’re suffering from a back condition and considering surgery, then chances are you’ve heard about laser spine surgery. TV and Internet ads suggest a quick, easy treatment for patients with chronic pain. The idea of a less invasive procedure to cure pain is very enticing.

The marketing of laser surgery is so successful that my patients routinely ask about the use of lasers, despite limited medical evidence and their relative infrequent use in spine surgery. The truth is, laser spine surgery seen in ads usually refers to minimally invasive surgery or a spinal injection using a needle. Neither necessarily means a surgeon will use a laser.

Newer techniques in spine surgery are less invasive. When possible, we attempt to preserve as much of the muscle, soft tissue and spinal anatomy as possible. Compared to traditional techniques, which require larger incisions, modern techniques – or minimally invasive surgery – allow for an easier initial recovery and can often be performed as a same-day surgery. No laser is involved.

The use of lasers in surgery has been around for decades. In spine surgery, the use of lasers is only a small portion of procedures. Some surgeons will use a laser in spine surgery to remove tumors or tissue around a nerve. But most painful conditions of the spine involve degenerative conditions like arthritis — where a laser is rarely needed or effective.

Medical research on the use of lasers for specific conditions, such as disc herniation, may be effective in some patients. However, this limited approach may not address the underlying cause of pain, such as spinal instability or deformity. Because of this, symptoms may return for some patients, requiring additional surgery to solve the problem.

Evaluating your options for spine surgery

If you’re evaluating surgical options for your condition, perhaps what’s more important than the technique is surgeon experience. You should seek a fellowship-trained surgeon and hospital that regularly perform both traditional and minimally invasive techniques in order to achieve the best result.

Spine treatment is very individualized to specific symptoms and at times can be complicated. A thoughtful, experienced surgeon recommends the most appropriate treatment for each individual patient. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single, easy cure for back pain. If the treatment sounds too good to be true, it’s worth your time to get a second opinion before having spine surgery.



Chad Patton, MD, is medical director of The Spine Center at AAMC and a spine surgeon with AAMC Orthopedics. To reach his practice, call 410-268-8862.

Originally published May 30, 2017. Last updated June 18, 2018.

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