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Does Laser Spine Surgery Work?

By Peter J. Dirksmeier, MD

This is a question often asked by patients. The answer is that laser use in spine surgery has never been studied in a controlled clinical trial and lasers are not widely used or accepted as a tool to be used in spinal surgery. There is tremendous marketing hype suggesting laser spine surgery is minimally or non-invasive and essentially risk free. The widespread marketing also suggests that it is a solution for chronic neck and back pain with a resultant quick return to a normal life. These claims are misleading and not substantiated in the medical literature. This is why medical insurance by and large will not pay for laser spine surgery. Furthermore, most cases of back and neck pain do not require or benefit from any type of surgery.

The truth is that lasers are not new technology and have been used in medicine since the early 1970’s. When they are used in spinal surgery, they have nothing to do with the size of the required incision or the degree of invasiveness of the procedure. The spine is accessed through incisions in an identical fashion and bone and ligament are removed using small instruments as necessary in order to free a nerve, (or nerves), from compression. The focused beam of light (laser) is used in a very limited fashion to remove some soft tissue around the spine which can be done more simply and equally effectively with the standard, well studied, and established instruments that are used by the vast majority of spine surgeons. Because there are no clear benefits of the laser in spinal surgery, most orthopedic and neurosurgical spine surgeons do not use or recommend the use of lasers for spine surgery.