Lasers are cool. Once the stuff of science fiction, focused light beam technology can be found in all kinds of modern devices designed to improve our quality of life.
‘Way back in 1917, the genius luminary Albert Einstein theorized that stimulated emissions could produce a special kind of electromagnetic radiation. A light wave frequency that falls within the optical (visible) or infrared bandwidths is called a laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
Lasers were first introduced in 1960. Light from a laser can be focused on a single focal point, captured by a lens, or bounced off a mirror. The exact wavelength dictates the laser’s use.
Similarly, the skin may reflect the light away (like a mirror) or scatter it (like a convex lens), absorb it, or let the light pass right on through to different dermal layers. Each layer of the skin uses the laser light differently.
Surgical operations in gynecology, otorhinolaryngology, neurosurgery, and plastic and general surgery all use carbon dioxide lasers. Here is a short list of what intensely focused light beams can do:
- Remove tumors
- Help prevent blood loss by sealing small blood vessels
- Seal lymph vessels to help decrease swelling and decrease the spread of tumor cells
- Treat some skin conditions, including to remove or improve warts, moles, tattoos, birthmarks, scars, and wrinkles
The operator (usually a doctor) directs the laser beam via a hand-held device or remotely, through the monitoring system of an operating microscope.
Surgical carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers use high heat to vaporize tissue: that is, turn it from a solid into a gas. Because the laser light is focused, the surrounding tissue remains intact and unharmed.
Needless to say, special training is required before operating medically with a laser beam. Rigorous safety standards must be followed.
Earlier this year (2018), the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new laser cutting tool called the LightScalpel Laser. Like other surgical lasers, this one says using it will:
- Minimize bleeding
- Reduce swelling and discomfort (pain)
- Lower the risk of infection
- Shorten surgery time
- Ensure a faster recovery
- Reduce the risk of scarring
- Produce better results
LightScalpel is made in America and FDA-sanctioned for oral surgeries, biopsies, treating skin conditions, and many other procedures where precision and minimal invasion are key factors to a successful outcome.
Laser surgery is popular among both health practitioners and patients because opening the body is not required – the procedure is minimally invasive. Concentrated light energy is well-suited to dental treatment since it:
- Is exact and predictable
- Is highly efficient and produces little heat
- Doesn’t require sterilization of the treatment area
- Minimizes bleeding
- Offers precise control over depth and extent of the incision
- Requires no pain medication in some cases
- Typically has little effect on the surrounding tissues
Dermatologists are using lasers to resurface the skin. They promise to “reduce facial wrinkles and skin irregularities, such as blemishes or acne scars.”
For a medical procedure called lasabrasion, laser peel, or laser vaporization, the specialist pulses brief, concentrated light beams at problem skin, removing it a layer at a time.
In addition to CO2 lasers, a second type of laser (erbium) is used for skin conditions and makes big promises:
“Erbium Laser Resurfacing promotes your body to actually produce collagen over the next 9-12 months, it tightens the skin, helps with draping, it smooths and removes superficial lines to moderately deep wrinkles, and has fewer side-effects and a more rapid recovery than the next option: a CO2 laser, which basically “burns your face off” and is done in an operating room. After that, the other options all require going under the knife.”
Some lasers are designed to do something very specialized. One example is the neodymium:yttrium-aluminum-garnet (Nd: YAG) laser which not only penetrates deeper into tissue but makes blood clot more rapidly. Passing Nd: YAG laser light through an optical fiber cable lets the surgeon access parts inside the body that are difficult to reach, such as the throat, in order to remove diseased cells.
Interstitial areas of the body – regions between organs – close to a tumor can be treated safely with laser-induced interstitial thermotherapy (LITT):
“The heat from the laser increases the temperature of the tumor, thereby shrinking, damaging, or destroying the cancer cells.”
Finally, argon lasers are used in photodynamic therapy (PDT) to heat a tumor in order to shrink, damage, or destroy the malignant tissue.
Lasers are often the tool of choice for cancer surgeries, especially when their unique qualities suit the medical need. Types of cancer that respond well to concentrated beams of focused light at a special wavelength include:
- Vocal cord
- Palliative surgery
Most people have heard of LASIK eye surgery to correct optical maladies. ” A million-plus Americans choose to have laser eye surgery each year to correct farsightedness, nearsightedness, presbyopia or astigmatism.”
There are a couple of downsides to laser surgery. For one thing, it can be pricey:
“Laser eye surgery can cost anywhere from $600 to $8,000 or more based on your healthcare plan and the provider or facility you use for your surgery. The costs of laser skin therapies can range from $200 to over $3,400, according to the University of Michigan Cosmetic Dermatology & Laser Center.”
Unpleasant side effects of lasering skin include bleeding, infection, pain, scarring, and changes in skin color.
Laser surgery may not last, requiring additional treatments.
Still and all, laser surgery sounds like the deal of the day to more and more people. “In 2015, the number of LASIK surgeries in the United States was approximately 596,000,” according to Statista. That number – for corrective eye surgeries alone – is projected to grow to nearly 720,000 by the year 2020.
It may be only a matter of time before we all benefit from the cool burn of laser surgery.