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Robotic assisted spine surgery is a real thing - here's how it works

Posted August 1, 2019 5:00 a.m. EDT

The FDA cleared a robotic-assisted system for spinal surgery in 2004, and since then, it has evolved and improved, becoming a viable option for patients as a form of minimally invasive spine surgery. (Master Video/Big Stock Photo)

This article was written for our sponsor, Dr. Sameer Mathur, Orthopedic Surgeon.

Technology is everywhere.

From the devices we use on a daily basis to make calls and send texts, to the cars we drive and the ATM machines we use, we interact with technology all the time. One industry in particular that continues to make great strides due to technological advances is the medical field.

Robotic surgical systems for example, have been used in various specialties as early as the 1980s. However, it wasn't until recently, in 2004, that the FDA cleared a robotic-assisted system for spinal surgery. Since then robotic spine surgery has evolved and improved, becoming a viable option for patients as a form of minimally invasive spine surgery.

"Robotic spine surgery is a great option for patients who are who are suffering from back and leg pain that is not responding to non-surgical treatments," said Dr. Sameer Mathur, an orthopedic surgeon at Cary Orthopedic who employs robotic spine surgery. "The surgery is minimally invasive and mitigates human error, and has proven to be successful in achieving results for many of my patients."

How it Works

Robotic spine surgery combines the knowledge of an experienced surgeon with state-of-the-art technology in the form of a robotic guidance platform.

Different doctors may use different platforms (i.e. different manufactured technology systems), but platforms typically include software, instrumentation, and robotic technology and navigation that delivers care that is precise and accurate.

Robotic spine surgery is typically recommended for patients who may be struggling with the following:

  • Disc problems like degenerative disc disease or herniated discs
  • Scoliosis
  • Problems from previous failed surgeries

Planning is the first and arguably the most important step when it comes to robotic spine surgery. After all, a surgeon needs to know exactly where the operation must take place and how it should be carried out.

Surgeons like Mathur use a CAT scan image of the spinal area in need of surgery. Advanced software then helps doctors create a blueprint for each surgical case before operating begins.

With the help of the blueprint, an algorithm and navigation technology when it is time for surgery, the surgical arm instrument is put into position, ready to carry out its commands. The entire procedure is carried out using software that has helped create a roadmap for the surgery based on the patient blueprints and takes doctors through each step.

With the assistance of a 3D roadmap created prior to surgery, the robotic arm moves to the precise location where the surgery is to be performed. Via this robotic arm, minimally invasive surgery can be performed and spinal instrumentation can be placed.

Surgeons use robotic instrumentation, such as the surgical arm, to make small incisions and separate the muscles around the spine rather than cutting them. The surgeon operates through small incisions along the spine.

Because the positioning of the robotic arm, incision sites and other aspects of the surgery are planned in advance, it helps to create a minimally invasive surgery that is precise and predictable.

However, elements like the depth of a screw must be monitored by the surgeon and are not automated through technology. It's variables like these that emphasize that technology cannot work without the expert knowledge of a skilled surgeon and does not serve as a "replacement" for a seasoned medical professional.

Surgeons guide and survey the technology throughout the entire procedure. Additionally, no two patients are the same and every surgery is planned specifically for each patient.

Benefits of Robotic Spine Surgery

While not every patient will be a candidate for robotic spine surgery, patients who are viable candidates should consider the following benefits of this procedure:

  • Smaller incisions and less bleeding
  • Less radiation exposure
  • More precision and accuracy (i.e. less risk)
  • Faster recovery time and shorter hospital stays

"Robot-guided spine surgery can be a game changer for those who are suffering from unresolved neck or back issues," Mathur advised. "Technological advances can be scary to embrace, but when you consider the precision, accuracy and minimal invasiveness of this surgery, it could be worth talking to your orthopedic surgeon to learn more about it."

This article was written for our sponsor, Dr. Sameer Mathur, Orthopedic Surgeon.