GPS technology improves delicate back surgery

May 4, 2009 3:21:04 PM PDT
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, 75 to 85 percent of Americans will suffer some form of back pain during their lives. Ninety percent of back pain cases improve without surgery, but for those who aren't as fortunate, a procedure called spinal fusion may be necessary.

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.

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.

Chantai Adams, 32, 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", says Dr. Richard Spiro, a neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Your misplacement rate is probably in the order of 10-percent."

In very complicated cases, experts say surgical screws can be misplaced up to 40-percent of the time. Neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Spiro is pioneering a procedure that guides the screw placement.

Doctors take a scan of the spine, creating a three-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," says Doctor Spiro. "Just like a GPS gives you when you're trying to make decisions about whether to turn right or turn left. We're doing the same thing."

With this system, doctors say they are accurate within one millimeter, meaning fewer complications for patients -- and for some, a faster recovery.

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