What is “laser surgery?”

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Sam was in the emergency room with abdominal pain and had just a had a CT scan. The ER doctor called me with the results, which showed Sam had appendicitis. I went to see Sam, and explained to him that his appendix was causing his pain and recommended surgery to take it out. Sam’s first question was, “Can you do that with that laser surgery?”

I smiled and explained to Sam that “lasers” aren’t actually used for that kind of surgery. What he actually meant was “laparoscopic surgery” – and, indeed, we DO do that kind of surgery! Laparoscopy is when surgery is done through very small incisions using special instruments and a camera in order to see inside the body. Special sleeves, called “ports,” are used to allow the instruments to pass through the small incisions, and the tips inside are controlled by hand grips on the outside at the other end of each instrument. The camera itself is essentially on a long stick, which also passes through a port, and the view is transmitted by a cord to a monitor screen, where the surgeon can see everything she is doing, in magnified images.

Operations that can be done laparoscopically include appendectomy (removing the appendix), cholecystectomy (removing the gallbladder), some hernia operations, certain bowel surgeries, and a number of other procedures by surgical specialists like Gynecologists, Urologists and Surgical Oncologists. Anytime an operation is done with laparoscopy, there is always a chance that the surgeon might have to convert to an “open” operation, meaning the need for a larger incision. Still, most operations that are started laparoscopically—with the camera and small holes—are able to be completed that way. For most patients, this also means less postoperative pain and a shorter recovery period.

Sam appreciated my explanation and said, “Oh, that’s good. So, you can do it laparoscopically?”

“Absolutely, “ I told him. His surgery went smoothly, and he was able to leave the hospital the next morning. His pain was manageable with over-the-counter medications, and he was grateful to be feeling better so quickly. When I saw him in the office two weeks later, his incisions were healing well, and he was already back to work teaching.

“Thanks, doc,” he said. “Even without lasers, that was pretty cool!”

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