Ask Drs. Wahlquist and Wills: Should I Try Laser Spine Surgery?

Summit spine specialists explain what research tells us about laser spine surgery safety.

laser spine surgery

As healthcare consumers, we have never had more access to information about medical choices. Finding healthcare information online isn’t difficult, but separating trustworthy information from advertising promises is much more challenging. The marketing of “laser spine surgery” is a case in point. Summit spine surgeons Dr. Trevor Wahlquist and Dr. Nick Wills explain the facts behind laser surgery marketing messages, and help you understand the difference between advertising hype and established surgical options.

What is laser spine surgery?

“Advertising makes laser spine surgery sound like a type of available procedure,” observes Dr. Wills. “Some marketing creates the impression that laser spine surgery is an advanced treatment that cures patients by directing a laser beam at the source of back pain—delivering lasting relief without any incision. What chronic back pain patient wouldn’t want that? There’s just one problem: there is no such thing as a laser spine surgery procedure or an incision-free spine surgery.”

Dr. Wills explains that a surgical laser is a tool used in the operating room—just like a scalpel or a forceps. Lasers have very specific, limited functions in surgical procedures, including cutting, coagulation, and ablation. “Lasers are a surgical instrument, not a type of procedure,” he points out. “There is no spine procedure that uses only a laser and no other instruments. Further, there are serious risks accompanying the use of lasers for spine surgery that patients should understand.”

How are lasers used in spine surgery?

“In the 1960s, dermatologists began using lasers,” explains Dr. Wahlquist. “Over time, other medical specialties began using lasers. For example, lasers are used for treatments in areas such as oncology and ophthalmology. As interest in laser technology grew, some surgeons incorporated lasers into orthopedic spine surgery.”

Public interest in laser use outpaced data evaluating the safety of laser use for spine surgery. But over time, research has been done, with results that call laser use into question. The data that have emerged through preclinical studies, clinical trials, and case reports compare laser spine surgery outcomes to outcomes for spine surgery without laser use. “This research tells us that lasers don’t provide a benefit compared to non-laser spine surgeries,” says Dr. Wahlquist. “In fact, the research revealed specific disadvantages and safety concerns related to laser spine surgery.”

Safety concerns with laser spine surgery

The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) recently published research detailing spine laser surgery concerns. Lasers used in disc ablation have caused thermal injury to adjacent disc cartilage, bone, and nerves. Patients undergoing surgery with lasers experienced less symptom relief and more postsurgical complications. Significantly, more than half of laser-treated patients (52 percent) required a second surgery within two years. Another complication unique to laser use is the risk that lasers may overpenetrate disc space and injure vital organs.

“In conclusion,” says Dr. Wahlquist, “there’s no scientific evidence that a laser is an effective treatment for any spinal pathology. And there is evidence that using lasers in spine surgery carries risks for the patient.”

Questions you should ask when considering spine treatment

“At Summit, we are committed to providing the safest, most advanced, and proven multidisciplinary spine care,” says Dr. Wills. “Education is integral to our approach to care, and we encourage questions about treatment options and any risks or potential complications associated with each treatment.”

  • What are my treatment options? “It’s always important to understand all of your conservative and surgical options,” says Dr. Wahlquist. “At Summit, we’ll usually begin with nonsurgical treatments because we know 80 percent of back pain resolves without surgery.”
  • Does research support the recommended procedure? “We welcome questions about research supporting our treatment recommendations,” states Dr. Wahlquist.
  • How experienced are you in this procedure? “Finally,” he continues, “you should ask us about our education and experience. If I have fellowship training in spine, that helps you assess my skill level. How many surgeries like yours have I performed? What are my patient outcomes and complication rates? What kind of outcome can you expect and how long does it generally take to recover after a specific procedure? All of this information helps you make better decisions about your medical care.”

Summit Orthopedics offers comprehensive spine expertise

Our back specialists diagnose spine problems and design custom treatment plans built on a conservative, nonsurgical approach. Most patients find relief through treatments including guided injections, specialized physical therapy, biofeedback, exercise, activity modification, and medication. When conservative care does not relieve symptoms, our highly skilled surgeons offer proven, evidence-based surgical options. Together with you, we will determine the right course of action.

Start your journey to a healthy spine. Find your spine expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 538-6909 to schedule a spine consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNVadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota.

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  • Trevor Wahlquist MD

    Trevor Wahlquist, M.D.

    “Ensuring people are living healthy and active lifestyles is important to me. I strive to work together with patients to find non-operative and operative solutions for their pain, getting them back to the activities and the people that matter most to them.”

    More about this expert

  • Nicholas Wills MD

    Nicholas Wills, M.D.

    “I understand the concern of athletes to get back to their sport and working in combination with our therapists helps them there.”

    More about this expert

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