By Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Cutting-edge technology offered right here in Pittsburgh is changing the game when it comes to treating back pain.

Dan Morrison is a wrestling coach and a farmer.

“Here in the spring, that’s our busiest time. Sometimes we’ll be doing 12-14 hours out here, planting,” he says. “I planted all but 10 acres of the corn and soybeans. And we did about a 130 acres of those two.”

Hard physical labor is a regular part of his life. But, his back was putting him in idle.

“Walking and my feet would go to sleep. And then walking and by legs would go to sleep,” he describes, “I didn’t have the stamina to walk more than a quarter-mile. The pain was too bad. I had to sit down.”

He needed surgery to correct the problem, which was a narrowing of the spinal column called spinal stenosis that can lead to pain, numbness, and weakness in the legs.

“Typically, we just go in and remove bone spur pressure, and that’s it. And that usually takes care of the problem, if the non-surgical management does not work,” says Allegheny General Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Donald Whiting.

But, his back bones were also sliding along each other and he needed rods to hold the bones in place. He has a big, burly build. Plus, he had never had spine surgery before — a combination of factors that made him a good fit for a new robotic procedure.

“Spinal instability, where the bones are hypermobile, or grinding, where you need to fuse those together,” says Dr. Whiting, “that’s where this is the most beneficial.”

CT scans are performed while the patient is in the operating room. Using GPS, the instruments are lined up. The robot helps pre-operatively with the approach.

“The robot just lines up the arm for our trajectory,” Dr. Whiting says, “and then we use that trajectory to get right where we want to go. Then we use the navigation afterward to put in the hardware.”

Dr. Whiting says careful planning when working through small incisions around the spinal cord and nerves boosts safety.

“Robotic heart surgery, robotic prostate surgery is fairly common now, but in the spine even more delicate and even more fine. It actually seems to enhance the surgery, and it seems to make it a little more safer, a little more predictable. So there’s no added risk at this point. it’s more added benefit,” Dr. Whiting says.

The neurosurgeons at Allegheny General Hospital are the first in the country to be incorporating this robotic technique. Insurance covers the surgery, and there’s no added charge for using the robot, which became commercially available in January. That’s when Dan had his operation.

In addition to spinal stenosis, it can be used in surgery to correct scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.

While the patient may be unaware of the robot’s assistance, what do they notice?

“Smaller incisions, less pain, quicker recovery,” Dr. Whiting says.

And a faster return to work.

“March 6, I was cutting down trees with a chain saw,” says Dan. “By the first of April, I was strong enough to do everything I had to do.”

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