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Machine vision technology can make back surgery more precise

While most back pain is caused by muscle strain, injury or spinal deformity, it can also be caused by a systemic or rheumatic illness.

NEW YORK — Back pain is the leading cause of disability among American adults under the age of 65. An estimated 500,000 lumbar spine surgeries are done every year. Now, a new technology similar to the navigation system for self-driving cars is improving accuracy and patient safety in the operating room.

For 66-year-old Sam DeMaria, this is a victory. He's been living with chronic back pain for 15 years and had six back surgeries over the years. The first five brought temporary relief, but then he’d be laid up again.

“The only comfort I had was in my bed, on my back, with pillows under my leg. That was it. If I came downstairs, I lasted five minutes, went right back upstairs,” DeMaria said. 

“He had scoliosis and multi-level, basically, numerous nerves that were getting compressed in numerous places," Mount Sinai neurosurgeon Jeremy Steinberger MD explained.

Dr. Steinberger and his team performed DeMaria’s sixth surgery, but this time, they had a new navigation system — using machine vision technology.

“You can basically touch a probe to the patient, and you see where you are on the patient's spine,” Dr. Steinberger said.

Machine vision technology is similar to the technology and sophisticated software used in self-driving cars. In a surgical suite, special cameras analyze the anatomy and create a 3D image. A light overhead takes a “flash” image and in four seconds, it gives surgeons thousands of fiducial points to register a patient’s CT scans.

“That's what links the patient to the technology and that's when you can check to confirm that you're accurate,” Dr. Steinberger added. 

“I was pain-free after the surgery. I'm standing up straight and that's what I wanted to accomplish," DeMaria said.

One added benefit to the technology is that the new navigation system does not require a patient to have fluoroscopy medical imaging that requires a continuous X-ray image on a monitor, which reduces radiation.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Ann Sterling at ann.sterling@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.

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