Traditional spinal surgery involves scalpels, or other precision cutting tools, and often entails opening up the back with a wide or long incision.

Dorothy Riess, MD/Getty Images

How does laser spine surgery work?

Traditional spine surgery involves scalpels, or other precision cutting tools, and often entails opening up the back with a wide or long incision. Muscle tissues are pulled aside so surgeons can get a good look at the problem and repair it.

Laser surgery, on the other hand, involves an incision of less than an inch to a couple of inches, which lessens the amount of displaced and severed tissue needing healing. This smaller incision will produce a smaller scar, but it also limits the view of the entire area around the spine, which some surgeons consider a necessity in traditional surgery. A larger cut provides a look at the entire working section of the spine.

Often, laser surgery is confused as a minimally invasive surgery, but minimally invasive surgery most often involves a small incision, a tiny endoscope with a camera for viewing inside the body and traditional surgical techniques without lasers. Doctors at the University of Chicago Medical Center, for example, perform minimally invasive spinal surgery using endoscopic cameras and 3-D imaging, which reduce the need for larger incisions and longer healing time for muscle tissue. They make tiny cuts and work from images displayed from inside the body onto TV monitors, but they do not use lasers [source: University of Chicago].

When using lasers, the surgery itself is also drastically different than traditional spinal surgery. Doctors performing laser spine surgery remove the sources of nerve sensitivity and pain by lasering off the ends and decreasing the size of the disks between vertebrae to relieve the pressure that is causing pain in a process called ablation. Laminotomy is the procedure that removes some of the "meat" of a disk, or adjacent bone spurs or growths, decompressing the disk size and reducing the amount of pressure on the spine and surrounding tissues.

These treatments are said to help with bone spurs, herniated and bulging disks, and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the area around the spinal column that causes excess pressure [source: Armstrong]. While decompression, or laminotomy, has shown to be effective as a technique for relieving disk issues and pain, using lasers to burn, rather than cut away, disk mass has not been proven more or even equally effective in clinical trials or over time. However, traditional diskectomy and microdiskectomy, the minimally invasive surgical technique without lasers, has shown to be effective [source: UMMC].

Checking with a doctor and following up with an orthopedic or neurological specialist is advisable if back pain persists or is the result of an impact injury. Finding a laser spine clinic on your own and getting a lone consult, may not the best course of action.

We'll look at the reasons why on the next page.