So you want a robot to do your spine surgery? You can now sign up...well at least for robot assisted surgery! Huntsville Hospital has recently purchased the Mazor robot for spine surgery and it is ready for action. I am sorry to diappoint you or perhaps I am happy to reassure you that a robot is not going to roll into the operating room, scrub in and replace your humanoid spine surgeon at the OR table.
So exactly how does a robot help in spine surgery? Let's describe the Mazor's role as a very sophisticated assistant. Spine surgery involves two fundamental tasks: Decompression and Stabilization. Decompression involves the delicate process of relieving abnormal and painful pressure on compressed neural structures namely the spinal cord or spinal nerves. This abnormal pressure can be the result of a disc herniation or arthritic bone spurs that result in spinal stenosis. Even tumors, infection or trauma can cause painful pressure on neural structures. Pain, weakness or even paralysis can occur from compression on neural structures. Well the robot is not ready to replace the experienced hands of your spine surgeon to perform decompression techniques...at least not yet!
Stabilization involves strengthening weak areas in the spine. In addition to causing abnormal pressure on nerves, degenerative disc disease, fractures, tumors and infection can destabilize the spine. Stabilizing a weak area of the spinal column involves fusing the weak area to relieve pain and prevent further danger to the spinal cord and spinal nerves. Fusing a weak, degenerative or unstable segment of the spinal column can also allow the spine to support the body for ambulation.
Modern spinal fusion techniques utilize spinal instrumentation. Instrumenting two or more vertebrae together is accomplished by using screws and rods. Screws placed in the spine are typically placed in a narrow tubular structure called the pedicle. This is where the Mazor robot asssists the surgeon. Using preoperative imaging from a CT scan, the Mazor robot can map out the exact trajectory to safely place the pedicle screw in the best location even with a very small incision. In some cases this allows the surgeon to become more efficient and use smaller incisions to instrument the spine. Patients can mobilize quicker and sometimes go home from the hospital sooner.
I expect robotic techniques will continue to evolve and assist the spine surgeon in the operating room. But I assure you that a robot is no where close to replacing your spine surgeon. So if you need a spine surgery go with the advice of your surgeon. He or she may want to leave the robot in the hallway!