Aug 4, 2021

Interviewer: If your loved one is experiencing some sort of serious spine issue, perhaps stenosis or herniated disc, you may be looking into spinal surgery. Now, typically you might be imagining your back being opened up for major surgery, but there's another option that is available.

We're here with Dr. Mark Mahan. He is an associate professor of neurosurgery at University of Utah Health. Now, Dr. Mahan, we're talking today about endoscopic surgery for the spine. Why don't you kind of talk me through exactly what happens with an endoscopic procedure like this and how it differs from say what I as a layperson think when I think about back surgery?

What is Endoscopic Spine Surgery?

Dr. Mahan: Endoscopic spine surgery is very similar to what people would refer to as traditional spine surgery, meaning that we're the same goals. We're there to decompress the nerves and in doing so with either removing disc fragments or treating narrowing that presses on the nerve roots, but doing it in a much smaller, much less traumatic fashion than previously accessed.

Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery vs. Open Spine Surgery

For most of us, the spine is really kind of in the center of the body, so getting there is always an art, to put it mildly. The older techniques, they work great for treating their intended targets, but the problem is, is there's a fair amount of tissue trauma involved with getting there.

And I've been intrigued for quite some time of finding a way of doing that same surgery, but in a way that does not cause the same tissue disruption, tissue trauma, and as a consequence, the same sort of pain or disability and recovery.

Like for so many things in medicine, we stand on the shoulders of others. Other pioneers had really developed using endoscopes previously, starting in about the 1980s, to create the same surgical corridor but through a much smaller opening. So now with the modern surgical endoscopes, we get beautiful illumination. We get beautiful magnification. We get beautiful video representation of the soft tissues in a way that we're able to perform those same delicate procedures, but through oftentimes really small, like 7 millimeters size skin incisions. That's, you know, 7 millimeters means it's less than your nail width depending on your fingers, but somewhere between your index finger. That's how big the skin incision is.

So that also means that that translates it's not just the skin incision size, it's because now you're going to go down with a very narrow caliber set of tools. So the things that you're going to be doing is that you're not going to be opening up as widely. You're not going to be disrupting joints. You're not going to be getting as much bleeding because we're constantly irrigating.

In fact, the operative field never actually gets to see air. There's none of the circulating air even in an ultra sterile OR environment that actually makes contact with the tissue. We're using constant irrigation with sealing. And so, again, it provides beauty and clarity to the surgeon but also minimizes any risk of infection or other bleeding type complication with regard to the surgery itself.

Endoscopic Surgery Technique

Interviewer: And again, as someone who's a layperson who might be kind of curious about this, how long have surgeons in the medical field been doing this kind of procedure? It seems kind of new I guess to me.

Dr. Mahan: I'd say it hasn't been done at a large volume for quite some time. There were some initial pioneers who were in the 1980s when they were coming out with the initial endoscopes who were starting it and trying it.

And you can imagine what using 1980s technology meant kind of dark kind of grainy, not necessarily with the same precision. Things really got a boost I would say in the, you know, the 2010s with the introduction of more modern, you know, high-definition televisions, easier access to those techniques, and then just greater popularity.

So we started seeing that the endoscopic technique was really taking off in Germany, and there there's a couple of key innovations that allowed it to be safe for the spine. So whereas you can think of joints having arthroscopes, those are endoscopes specific for joints, those were a little earlier take on, but they were using really high-pressure pumps and those high-pressure pumps would be dangerous if not lethal in the spine. So we had to really develop lower pressure technologies. You had to develop specific tools sets that were able to do the same sort of meticulous and very detailed work we do with the spine.

We saw that those tools and techniques and instrumentation sets really start about 2010-ish, and so there's a very small fraction of spine surgeons in the United States who are trained to do this, unfortunately, because I think it's the technique that should really predominate. And I do, you know, have the good fortune of being able to go train other spine surgeons on how to do this and adopt this technique, which I really enjoy teaching the other spine surgeons how to do it because hopefully it will become the dominant technique and it's not just a single or specialty practice.

Benefits and Risks of Endoscopic Spine Surgery

Interviewer: It sounds like this procedure has been getting more and more popular over the last two decades, and you sound confident that it could be the next standard practice for a procedure like this. What is it that you see in this particular type of procedures and what are some of the pros and cons of it that make you think that this is going to be the way that surgery is going to be going?

Quicker Recovery

Dr. Mahan: I really like the fact that it has minimal tissue trauma, which means that it has quicker recoveries. So when you ask about the pros and cons, the certain positive that I particularly love and I particularly enjoy about the surgery is that it provides rapid recovery for my patients. That the next day when I talk to my patients or find out how they're doing, they're describing that they're already back to more activities oftentimes than they were before surgery, which is relatively rare.

When we think about surgery, where most people are like, "Yeah, I've got a down period," and I don't have patients coming back to me with like down periods. They're like, "I'm out walking." I hear reports over and over again. They're like, "I am walking now more like the day after surgery than I was in like the several months leading up to surgery." It is that dramatic as far as differences in outcomes. So that's the most certain person and positive note.

Lower Risk of Infection

Now, some of the other positives I particularly like, again, its lower blood loss. It has a substantially lower risk of infection. There's a substantially lower risk of a specific complication that occurs in spine surgery and that's spinal fluid in leaks or thecal sac injuries. And that's unique to the endoscopic technique is again, we're using sealing to put a little bit of pressure and create space and so the thecal sac is moved away and so you have less risk of that specific complication.

There are downsides, right? I tell all my patients almost repeatedly, you know, if it's powerful enough to help, it's powerful enough to harm. There are cases where people have injured, you know, individuals with using minimally invasive techniques. Endoscopic spine surgery is no stranger to that.

I would certainly say that I think, in my hands, the complication rate is lower, but it's not it's a freebie. It's not like there are no risks. Secondarily and I think the most of the negatives really accrue to the surgeon. You imagine like if you had to do the same work, let's say it's painting a wall, and you were given the choice of a big paintbrush or a tiny paintbrush, which do you think would lead to be faster endpoint?

Interviewer: It's the big brush, right?

Dr. Mahan: The big brush. It's the big brush. The big brush is going to do something quicker. And so, if you force the surgeon to do the same procedure with tinier tools, it's going to take longer. And the way that the insurance in the United States reimburses surgeons, it's on sort of work product. And so again, they pay you to paint the wall. If you can paint the wall faster, then it can be a choice.

Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery Success Rate

Interviewer: What are the success rates like on a procedure like this?

Dr. Mahan: The success rate on anything in life really kind of depends on what your probabilities of success are. So if I take somebody who has relatively straightforward problem and has a very focal problem that's apparent on MRI and is clear on their physical exam and their description of their symptoms, we're going to have a good success rate whether it's an open technique or an endoscopic procedure.

If it's something that's a little bit more challenging, somebody has multiple problems, multiple medical issues, other interdependencies, you know, things that are going on in their lives that are either participating or motivating the pain, then we're going to be less successful. But so for that, let's take the good situation which is for most people where they are.

This is, you know, somebody who has singular problems, relatively identifiable things that could fix their problem, and they're going to have an 80% to 90% success rate with a surgical treatment and it's going to be durable. We want to do a simple procedure that doesn't necessarily create problems that need treatment later.

There are some spine procedures out there that cause further problems down the road. This is one of the ones that leaves a person essentially with more or less their native anatomy, their normal anatomy. And so the goal there is that the only thing that contributes to future problems is really, you know, the nature of time and body's ability to resist time but not the surgery itself.

Interviewer: Say that a patient has now received their diagnosis, they know they have one of these spine issues like we've talked about earlier. What is their first step? Say they're listening to this right now and they're intrigued about this procedure, what is their very first step to get more information and maybe even meeting up with someone like you or another trained professional?

Spine Evaluations

Dr. Mahan: One of the things that we want oftentimes in medical practice, and this applies to a lot of things, is that we want somebody to ideally for somebody to come to me or to come to one of another trained practitioners. If they've had a degree of workup, meaning that they've been evaluated, they've been seen by somebody, and that the process has already been started.

For example, a classic thing is that sometimes you have back pain that can be treated with physical therapy, some exercises, some stretching, maybe some modest medications, right? We're talking about like anti-inflammatories and other things that can get you back to recovery that you don't need surgery for. And so both insurance and the surgeons really want to have that evaluated ahead of time so that when you're coming to somebody, it's meaningful. It's a meaningful use of the patient's time. That you're not coming to see somebody who's going to talk about surgery when you don't need it.

And so it's not a waste of the patient's time. It's not a waste of, you know, of resources or other things. So an initial evaluation, maybe some time with the physical therapist, trial of medications. And then if those aren't working and the MRI, which is a critical component of all of our evaluations, because that's where we can come back to saying is an anatomical surgery going to fix your problem.

And so we need a view of that anatomy, and fortunately, MRIs just do such a beautiful job of doing that is that. If an MRI shows that there's a problem, then clearly there's something that we may be able to intervene on and achieve a good outcome.

Interviewer: Wow. So it sounds like it's a kind of newer procedure and you've got to find the right doctor to do it, the right surgeon and you got to make sure that you have done your homework, gotten your imaging and your workups and everything but maybe they're curious about this type of procedure and treatment, where is somewhere where they can get more information?

Dr. Mahan: Well, one place to start would be the University of Utah website. We have a lot of wonderful information there that can give you the breadth because no patient has the same and what no problem is the same either. So there's oftentimes very distinct treatments that endoscopic spine surgery may not be for you. I would love to think that it is, but at the same time, realistically, there are plenty of things that may need to be done and it may not be endoscopic spine surgery and so that's a great resource to go to.

For Patients