New types of spine surgery revolutionize orthopedic medicine

Jun 2 2011
Not so long ago, individuals with lower back pain stemming from degenerative disc disease either had to accept a life of progressing discomfort and disability, or undergo open-back surgery.

In either case, their outcome was not great. Essentially, they had to choose between chronic pain and impaired quality of life, or a surgery that carried a high risk of complications as well as a long and painful recovery period.

Fortunately, due to technological advances in the field of orthopedic medicine, these dilemmas are increasingly a thing of the past.

Today's patients have a wide variety of spine surgery options if conservative treatments with physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications fail to bring relief. Chief among those options is endoscopic surgery.

Endoscopic procedures are minimally invasive, and some of the most advanced ones take less than one hour to perform, as opposed to several hours for open-back spinal fusion. The surgeon typically makes only a small incision, which has the advantage of reducing the risk of blood loss and infection, and leaves only a minimal scar, instead of an unsightly mark along the length of the spine.

Developments in laser technology have allowed orthopedic surgeons to adopt this tool to quickly vaporize growths and other pathologies of vertebral discs, while sparing the surrounding tissue from trauma. This - coupled with the fact that many of endoscopic spine surgeries are performed in an outpatient setting and under local anesthesia - allows for a much quicker recovery time. It usually takes about two weeks for patients to be back on their feet and resume daily activities, while in the past, some people had to spend months in bed recovering.

Needless to say, new types of spine surgery also have economic benefits. Not only are they cheaper, thus reducing healthcare costs and out-of-pocket spending, but they also allow people to return to work faster.

"The fusion, hardware and disc replacements associated with other procedures are expensive, [but an endoscopic] procedure can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars less than open-back [surgery]. It's win-win for insurance companies and patients," says spine surgeon Michael W. Perry, MD, quoted by Becker's Orthopedic, Spine and Pain Management Review.

The need for such innovative treatments becomes very clear when certain demographic trends are taken into consideration. According to the Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging, the number of individuals older than 60 currently stands at nearly 57 million, but is expected to go up to 92 million by 2030.