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What We’ve Learned Leading the Way in 2020 with Augmented Reality for Spinal Surgery

Authored by Dr. Thomas Schuler, MD, FACS, FAAOS. January 5, 2021

The year 2020 has been a challenging year for many reasons, but one bright spot in our field of spinal health care was the introduction of augmented reality (AR) in spinal surgery. We have been an early adopter of this innovative technology at the Virginia Spine Institute and this year our surgeons pioneered its use in a variety of ways.

Approved by the FDA just one year ago – in December 2019 – AR is expected to revolutionize the healthcare industry and has been shown to improve accuracy, potentially leading to better patient outcomes.

Our surgeons use the AR “Xvision” system, made by Augmedics. The technology utilizes all elements of a traditional navigation system, including a special headset the surgeon wears during the procedure, which makes it possible for them to visualize a patient’s 3D spinal anatomy during surgery – almost like they have ‘X-ray vision.’ This groundbreaking new technology has the potential to streamline and partner several technologies in the operating room giving surgeons better control and making procedures easier, safer, faster, and less invasive.

While we are at the forefront of our industry in our early use of this groundbreaking technology, we also know this is just the beginning for AR in the OR – for us and everyone else. Here are 3 reasons why: 

  1. There’s less muscle dissection

One of the many benefits of utilizing augmented reality in surgeries is the ability to minimize muscle dissection. Using AR allows our surgeons to minimize muscle damage compared to traditional spine surgery. This minimally invasive approach causes less pain, which speeds healing and reduces the recovery period.

  1. The surgeon rarely has to take their eyes off the patient

The navigation system projects the patient’s CT images into the surgeon’s headset, making it possible for him to see high-resolution 3D images of the patient’s spine superimposed over the patient’s actual anatomy in real-time. The surgeon’s personalized headset accurately determines the position of surgical tools and superimposes them on the patient’s CT data, allowing the surgeon to stay focused on the patient at all times and eliminating the need to look up and across the OR at images displayed on other screens, which has long been standard operating procedure. 

  1. AR offers enhanced views for surgeons

This technology holds infinite promise in surgery and is especially exciting in our field where we operate in very narrow channels. AR provides enhanced views of spinal areas for the surgeon. It is also expected to be particularly useful during revision surgeries when the anatomy is distorted, allowing surgeons to easily make adjustments as they navigate during procedures.

This really is just the beginning for AR, which has the potential to continue to transform spinal surgery – and all surgeries – for the better. As this technology continues to advance, you can trust that it will continue to make the placement of spinal instrumentation more accurate and safer, reduce OR times, and translate into faster recoveries.  We will continue to devote ourselves to leading the way with this innovation to help our patients return to pain-free lives, faster! 

Dr. Thomas Schuler is a world-renowned, double board certified spine surgeon; trained in both neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery of the spine. He founded Virginia Spine Institute in 1992 and is a recognized international leader in the treatment of neck and lower back conditions. Dr. Schuler is noted among the 100 best spine surgeons in America, and serves as President of the National Spine Health Foundation as well as Chairman of its Medical and Scientific Board. Learn more about Dr. Schuler. 



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About The Author

Dr. Thomas Schuler, MD, FACS, FAAOS

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