Amazing Laser Application 10: Surgery!

What's the application? Using lasers to cut and/or cauterize tissue during surgical procedures, instead of the traditional very small very sharp knives.

What problem(s) is it the solution to? 1) "How can we do surgery without touching the tissues being operated on?" 2) "How can I get rid of these annoying glasses/contact lenses?"

How does it work? First, you strap a device to your head that lets you shoot laser beams from your forehead, like one of the X-Men. then you use a magnifying glass to focus it to where it needs to be. Like so:


(I'm not sure exactly what sort of procedure that is, but I really hope that's not how they do the surgeries where they re-shape the cornea...)

The basic idea of laser surgery is sort of similar to the previous application, namely, if you focus a laser beam down to a very small spot, it will deliver a great deal of energy to that spot. If that spot happens to be on a bit of human tissue, it can get hot enough to blast the target cells into vapor.

This allows you to make extremely precise cuts in human tissue, with the bonus effect of keeping everything involved nice and sterile, as there is no contact between a physical device that might carry microbes and the tissue in question-- just light. The heat involved also tends to kill harmful microscopic critters that are already hanging around, and sometimes to cauterize blood vessles, keeping everything much cleaner.

The default sort of laser surgery that people think of is LASIK vision correction, which is explained in slightly gross detail with step-by-step images here. The idea is to use a powerful laser to blast away bits of the cornea, reshaping it so as to move the focal point to a location closer to the retina, thus improving the patient's vision.

There are a bunch of other non-LASIK eye surgeries done with lasers, as well. It's also used for surgeries on other parts of the body, but it's damnably difficult to sort those applications from the nine billion pages about laser eye surgery. A partial and not very detailed list can be found here, which gives you the basic idea.

Why are lasers essential? Once again, the key to the whole thing is getting a very intense pulse of light directed to a very small point. While I suppose it's theoretically possible to do this sort of thing with a great big lens on a sunny day, lasers are really the way to go. Especially if you're in a climate where it's often cloudy.

Why is it cool? Dude, surgery with lasers!

As noted above, laser scalpels offer a number of nice properties that help reduce the chance of serious complications-- reduced bleeding, lower risk of infection, greater precision, etc. And, as a bonus, when you're done with surgery you can breathe some ether, crank up the Pink Floyd, and enjoy a homemade light show.

Why isn't it cool enough? Surgical applications of lasers are still kind of limited, and mostly reproduce things that can also be done with a regular scalpel. Also, the radio and tv spots run by some LASIK doctors are pretty annoying.

More like this

What's the application? The use of lasers to provide an entertaining light show for humans, dogs, or cats. What problem(s) is it the solution to? 1) "How will I entertain my dog or cat?" 2) "How can we distract people from the fact that Roger Daltrey has no voice left?" Why are lasers essential…
What's the application? CD and DVD players use lasers to read (and in some cases write) digital information from convenient plastic disks. What problem(s) is it the solution to? 1) "How do we store a large amount of digital information in a convenient and stable fashion?" 2) "How do we make…
What's the application? The goal of laser ignition fusion experiments is to heat and compress a target to the point where the nuclei of the atoms making up the sample fuse together to form a new, heavier nucleus, releasing energy in the process. Nuclear fusion is, of course, what powers stars, and…
What's the application? Producing artificial "stars" to serve as a reference for telescopes using adaptive optics to correct for atmospheric turbulence. This allows ground-based telescopes to produce images that are as good as those from the Hubble Space Telescope. What problem(s) is it the…

I got laser surgery for retina reattachment in the 80's (not knowing that "state of the art" also meant "no idea of long term effects"). 20 years later another eye surgeon commented "oh God, that looks like someone drove through there with a tank". That was while he was prepping me for Lasik. Looks like I didn't get the message the first time, but then, going from 20 and a mile to 20/30 in 5 min was pretty eyeopening.

Don't forget that lasers allow surgeons to operate where they can't get a scalpel, such as the retina of the eye. Without lasers, people with detached retinas would go permanently blind. With lasers, it's just a minor surgical procedure.


P.S. I have a nice photograph of a "really sweet" laser retina surgery result.

Lasers are frequently used to treat diabetic eye disease, prevent or treat retinal tears. What exists now is very different than what used to exist - the power, size, duration, and placement is much more precise. If it helps any, it is so precise that you can use the same equipment on mouse eyes. There are also many more kinds of lasers used with eye surgery now, including so-called "cold" ones. There are even some applications now that you could not do, or not as well without a laser. And yes, the LASIK ads are annoying.

That is a might freaky picture accompanying the article.

Is that really how they do laser eye surgery? I wouldn't think the human head is a great precision pointing instrument, and it's a long lever arm from that dude's head to whatever he's zapping.

What the heck is going on there? (Other than giving me nightmares.)

By Anonymous Coward (not verified) on 20 Apr 2010 #permalink

LASIK Surgery has become quite common and the percentage of failures is minute when compared to past. Most of the people prefer LASIK surgery becoz they can avoid lens and glasses when used.LASIK surgery has gained popularity and suggested by many optometrist. I use contact lens and planning to go for surgery as i have constant sight since last year.