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What is the difference between minimally invasive spine surgery and open spine surgery?

The term “minimally invasive” is frequently used in healthcare, but many patients don’t fully understand the differences between a minimally invasive and traditional or “open” procedure. If a doctor has recommended spine surgery to treat your back pain, a minimally invasive procedure may be an option.

During a minimally invasive spine surgery, the surgeon creates a small incision (compared to a five or six-inch long incision made in traditional open surgery). A tubular refractor is inserted into the incision and the surgeon is guided by fluoroscopy, a method that displays real-time X-ray images of the spine on a screen during surgery. An operating microscope is also used to magnify the surgeon’s view.

Here are some of the key differences between minimally invasive spine surgery and open spine surgery.

Similar clinical outcomes.

First, it’s important to know that both open and minimally invasive approaches to spine surgery are designed to achieve the same goal: to decompress spinal nerves and, if necessary, stabilize the spine so you can return to your normal level of function. Minimally invasive techniques, however, require a high level of training and skill in order to achieve the best outcomes. Surgical residents and fellows are trained on open procedures first before learning the minimally invasive techniques.

Less pain, lower risk.

Minimally invasive back surgery is designed to decrease blood loss, lower infection rate, reduce patient pain and speed the healing process, allowing the patient to return to work and normal activities as soon as possible.

Because minimally invasive techniques do not disrupt the muscle or soft tissue, post-operative pain following a minimally invasive procedure is often milder than the pain patients report after an open procedure. Minimally invasive procedures also typically have better cosmetic results from smaller skin incisions and reduced risk of muscle damage during surgery.

As with any surgery, there are certain risks associated with a minimally invasive procedure. These include the risk for:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Blood clots
  • Infection
  • Pain and discomfort
  • Reaction to anesthesia
  • Need for additional surgeries

Lower cost.

Generally speaking, the cost for a minimally invasive procedure is much lower than that of an open procedure. Minimally invasive procedures typically shorten hospital stays and reduce the risk of complications — two key factors that result in cost savings for back surgery patients. Typically, no more than a two or three-day stay is required following a minimally invasive spine surgery. Some minimally invasive procedures can even be performed in an outpatient setting using only local anesthesia, eliminating the need for a hospital stay.

Although minimally invasive spine surgery can be an attractive option, it isn’t necessarily always the best choice and depends on the back condition being treated, among other factors. Spine conditions commonly treated with minimally invasive procedures include:

  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Herniated disc
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Scoliosis
  • Vertebral compression fractures
  • Spinal instability

Minimally invasive procedures have been found to cause higher exposure to radiation, although the effects of that exposure to the patient are not well documented.

Minimally invasive spine surgery can be a good choice for patients who may be considered poor candidates for open spine surgery, but certain back conditions, including some types of spinal infections or spine tumors, are better treated with traditional, open back surgery.

The decision to choose minimally invasive spine surgery is not one to take lightly. Ask your doctor about any questions or concerns you may have and carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of minimally invasive procedures against all other options. Talk to your spine surgeon about all the options, and be sure to ask about your doctor’s experience and success performing a particular minimally invasive spine procedure.

If you have been diagnosed with a spine condition requiring surgery, you want an experienced surgeon to perform your procedure, whether it be a minimally invasive or open spine surgery. Contact Dr. Kushwaha today to learn more about spine conditions treated with minimally invasive surgery in Houston.

About Vivek Kushwaha

Vivek P. Kushwaha attended the University of Texas at Austin where he earned his B.A. from the College of Natural Sciences. He then earned his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio, Texas.

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