Robotic spine surgery offers new way in treating back pain

Specialized robot helps some patients during back surgery

HOUSTON - Lower back pain affects 85 percent of Americans at some point in their life. Sometimes you can get relief without going under the knife, but when surgery is necessary it's often painful and invasive. There's now a new procedure using robots that makes recovery a lot easier.

Tim O'Rourke, 55, is about to undergo a spinal fusion.

"Oh, we've tried blockers, chiropractic, but it just kept getting worse and worse," O'Rourke said.

It got in the way of his job as a contractor and stopped him from playing with his grandchildren.

O'Rourke was pretty much a textbook case for surgery, according to symptoms listed by the American Association of Neurological Surgeon, which include:

-Back and leg pain limiting normal activity -- impairing quality of life
-Progressive trouble like leg weakness and numbness
-Trouble standing or walking
-No relief, even after taking medication

So O'Rourke went to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jian Shen. Shen said once you've exhausted all other options, he will recommend surgery. But, he wants patients to know not all back surgery is the same.

"For me, minimally invasive surgery means special tools, computer, microscope and achieve the goal of traditional open surgery with much smaller incision," Shen said.

Shen uses a specialized robot to help some patients.

In O'Rourke's case, one disc will be removed and replaced with a graft that contains cadaver bone mixed with shavings of his own bone from his spine. The new graft it will grow into the area that had become compressed, causing his pain.

"I can plan the surgery even before you make any incision. So during the surgery every step would be expected. No surprise," said Shen.

Using the robot minimizes damage to soft tissue and improves recovery time. Shen said patients need to carefully review the procedure with their doctor to understand the risks and the benefits.

"For certain spinal conditions it's a cure. I really do not expect the patient to come back for more surgery after fusion surgery," said Shen.

Local 2 found these Houston-area facilities offering robotic spinal surgery:

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