Minimally invasive spine surgeries may gain a new, inexpensive tool

Aug 4 2011
Endoscopic spine surgeries have been around for a while and have grown in popularity among busy individuals who cannot afford to take months off to recover from a regular procedure.

These operations rely on a small incision, through which the orthopedic surgeon inserts small instruments to access the targeted area of the spine and fix the affected disc or discs. Often, he or she does so using a laser that vaporizes any abnormal growths or herniation in a way that does not damage the soft surrounding tissues. This type of approach has the benefit of being performed much faster - often in about an hour and under local anesthesia - and of carrying a lower risk of infections or blood loss.

Now, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM) in Berlin, Germany, have announced the development of a new tool that may further facilitate delicate endoscopic tests and operations. The device is a microcamera that is the size of a grain of salt, making it possible to affix it on the tip of the endoscope. However, despite its size, it provides reliable, high resolution images. In addition to that, it can be manufactured very inexpensively, making it potentially extremely attractive in an era of escalating healthcare costs and lean budgets.

"We can produce microcameras so inexpensively with our technology that doctors can dispose of endoscopes after using them only once," said Martin Wilke, a scientist at the Fraunhofer IZM.

This represents another advantage over the existing cameras, which need extensive cleaning after each procedure before they can be reused.

The researchers have teamed up with a manufacturing company and are hoping to be able to offer the first microcameras, costing only a few dollars each, beginning in 2012.

Meanwhile, both economic and demographic trends indicate that minimally invasive surgeries will only grow in popularity in the coming years.

As the economy remains weak, fewer people can afford to take time off from work for a traditional open-back surgery that requires months of recovery. In addition to that, the U.S. population is aging, which will send more patients to doctors' offices to seek help for chronic lower back pain. 

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.