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YOUR HEALTH: Delicate surgery goes high tech

Augmented reality could be the future of surgery

More than a million and a half people will undergo spine surgery this year.

Now, surgeons are using augmented reality inside the operating room. 

"The best analogy for this is to have the most advanced GPS navigation system, in front of you," explained Dr. R. Todd Allen, an orthopedic surgeon at UC San Diego Health.

It's been a life-changer for Helen Joline who was diagnosed with osteoarthritis.

Her back pain was becoming unbearable.

"The joints just wear out and then bone spurs occur in those joints causing further problems, cartilage disappears," she said.

Helen underwent a spinal fusion with augmented reality technology.

Her doctor, orthopedic surgeon Todd Allen, is one of the first to use this on spines. 

He sees a view from the top and side with the patient's CT scan superimposed.

"I can see every bony little arch and ridge," said Dr. Allen.

Without augmented reality, surgeons rely on X-rays and CT images. 

They are looking at screens, not the patients. 

This surgical technique can make a big difference with smaller incisions, less blood loss, less tissue dissection, lower risks from complications, and the potential for a faster recovery.

"I didn't realize how bad I was feeling until I felt great," said Joline.

Just a few months after surgery and Helen is ready to go.

"I'm feeling very strong now," she remarked.

"My core and my back is feeling strong."

Teaching tool

Augmented reality has also been used to train medical students on surgeries like blood clot removals, or penis implant surgeries. 

However, adapting the technology from training to regular use has taken longer.  

Dr. Allen believes augmented reality will be critical in teaching residents how to perform these very technical spine surgeries, allowing future surgeons to see the spine as well as the techniques used during surgery within the spine in real time.

That's something new doctors had not been able to see before.

Augmented reality is a new technology in spinal surgery

The process consists of a headset with a see-through eye display that projects images of the patient's internal anatomy based on their CT scans over their open surgical area. 

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 Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.