The rapid boom of artificial intelligence and virtual reality in the faces of the public has led to a similar boost of new technologies across the healthcare space. In particular, the amount of augmented reality- (AR) assisted spine surgeries has rapidly increased over the past several years.
“In 2019, however, clinical application reports began to rise,” A January SpineUniverse.com article states. “The study authors posited that increasingly rapid AR-related hardware and software development may have spurred the growth in clinical narratives.
After the studies’ analysis, the authors determined that the AR-based head-mounted display and surgical navigation system are the most widespread surgical applications. Surgeons primarily use the AR-linked applications in thoracic and lumbar surgical level procedures.”
Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality
The differentiation between augmented and virtual realities (VR) is quite simple. Augmented reality takes real-world settings, such as an office or park, and overlays digital elements for viewing. In surgery, vital data and information are overlaid onto the patient during a procedure. Information can include correct areas to place screws and a visual of a CT scan done before beginning the surgery.
On the other hand, virtual reality is 100% virtual, which means it does not utilize any digital overlays in a real-world setting. Furthermore, devices like VR headsets go entirely over the eyes, creating a new world for users to enjoy.
Benefits of Augmented Reality in Spine Surgery
With the continuing boom in healthcare technology, physicians, surgeons, and patients are all seeing the benefits of including this new tool. Some benefits include:
Improved Patient Education: Patients can now see precisely how their surgeon will perform their procedure. This can also help inform patients of the correct recovery processes and reduce anxiety.
Training Medical Students: Augmented reality can become a powerful teaching tool, allowing students and teachers to see exactly how a procedure will be performed. This semi-hands-on approach can reduce future errors and improve comprehension of medical topics.
Reduction of Errors: Using augmented reality during a procedure can help reduce errors and improve patient outcomes. The University of Connecticut details that the technology also allows for smaller incisions and more accurate placement of spinal incisions. A heads-up display (HUD) lets the surgeon focus on the task rather than continually glance at screens for important information or visuals.
A New Way to View the Spine
The most significant and obvious benefit of utilizing augmented reality is the ability to view real-time data and the spine in a new light.
“When using augmented reality in the operating room, it’s like having a GPS navigator in front of your eyes in a natural way so you don’t have to look at a separate screen to see your patient’s CT scan,” Timothy Witham, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Neurosurgery Spinal Fusion Laboratory and professor of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in a February 2021 article.
Witham led Johns Hopkins’ first augmented reality surgeries on living patients on June 8, 2020.
By performing a CT scan before the procedure, the AR device can adequately show the patient’s anatomy and assist surgeons in ensuring that each movement and installed screw or change is made with absolute precision. As mentioned above, this ability to move swiftly and confidently improves patient outcomes and faster recovery times.
What Procedures Are Improved Through AR?
According to the University of Connecticut, some spine procedures that utilize AR technology include:
- Degenerative Spine Disease
- Spinal Deformity (Scoliosis/Kyphosis)
- Failed Neck and Back Syndrome
- Spinal Stenosis
What Does the Future Hold?
As augmented reality continues to evolve within the healthcare industry, the future looks bright for physicians and patients alike. A future combination of augmented reality and robotic surgery could lead to historical changes, providing higher-quality insight and drastically improved procedures.
“In future applications, one can foresee using augmented reality devices to see through structures before encountering them to minimize complications and risks,” Ali H. Mesiwala, MD, FAANS, told SpineUniverse. “[AR devices could also assist in] placing implants in patients whose body habitus would otherwise be challenging due to inability of fluoroscopic penetration and reliance on complex and expensive navigation systems.”
UCONN Health: https://health.uconn.edu/spine/services/minimally-invasive-spine-surgery/augmented-reality-spine-surgery/#:~:text=Augmented%20reality%20uses%20glasses%20to,care%20to%20the%20operating%20room.