GPS for the Spine

May 18, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Spine surgery is one of the most delicate operations. Accuracy is critical, but even in the hands of the most skilled surgeons, screws can be misplaced up to 40 percent of the time. Doctors are pioneering a new procedure that eliminates the guesswork.Imagine a global positioning system that works inside the human body. Surgeons say they are now able to achieve the same kind of pinpoint accuracy for back patients.

"Here's bone meeting bone pinching nerve, and it was killing me!" Chantai Adams, who underwent spine surgery, told Ivanhoe. Thirty-two-year-old Adams had a spinal fusion to relieve the pain. Doctors used tiny surgical screws and hardware to link a portion of her vertebrae together, eliminating any movement. It's a very common procedure but one that doctors admit is not always perfect.

"In an ideal world, where you're doing day-to-day surgery, your misplacement rate is probably in the order of 10 percent," Richard Spiro, M.D., a neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., told Ivanhoe.

In very complicated cases, experts say surgical screws can be misplaced up to 40 percent of the time. Dr. Spiro is pioneering a procedure that guides the screw placement. Doctors take a scan of the spine, creating a 3-D image. Cameras in the operating room communicate with transmitters on the tips of surgical tools. A computer monitors the movement.

"Then we're able to place the hardware based on that real-time information, just like a GPS gives you when you're trying to make decisions about whether to turn right or turn left," Dr. Spiro said. "We're doing the same thing."

With this system, doctors say they are accurate within 1 millimeter, meaning fewer complications for patients -- and for some, a faster recovery. It's helping put patients like Adams back in the driver's seat.

After more than 100 surgeries, Dr. Spiro says surgeons using the system have a perfect accuracy rate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:
Gloria Kreps
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
(412) 647-3555

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