If you know lasers only from science fiction films, then you probably recognize them as weapons of mass destruction capable of destroying entire planets, especially when built large enough. Real life lasers have more benign applications though. Apart from being used for science and many industries, they are utilized mainly to save and improve lives in the form of highly advanced medical tools. In fact, lasers are the go-to technology for many non-invasive procedures meant to address a number of complex conditions.
Lasers in medicine
Since their invention more than half a century ago, lasers have been noted for their potential use in the medical field. Among lasers’ strongest suits were their ability to make very precise cuts and to operate at very particular wavelengths. In 1960, Leon Goldman demonstrated how red ruby laser can be used to remove birthmarks, such as port wine stains, and melanomas from the skin. While the range of applications for lasers has exponentially expanded since then, the technology is still most popularly used in the fields of dermatology and ophthalmology.
Lasers are used for many profound illnesses and conditions today, including vascular disease, diabetic retinopathy, retinal tears, and holes. Read more about them below:
1. Vascular disease
Vascular disease is an umbrella term that covers conditions and diseases affecting the body’s vascular system, which refers to the network of vessels carrying blood to and from the heart, as well as other fluids to different parts of the body. Due to a number of factors, including lifestyle and genetics, the body’s arteries and veins can weaken, stiffen, pop, or become clogged, leading to complications and even death. Diseases under this category ranges from simple varicose veins down to fatal aneurysms.
Laser Treatments for Vascular Disease
Laser technology allows doctors to shear away very specific targets, which is very helpful in treating blockages common in many forms of vascular disease. In the case of atherosclerosis, for example, doctors perform peripheral laser atherectomy, which involves inserting a catheter to the artery blocked by a build-up of plaque (fat, calcium, tissue, and other substances). The catheter carries a laser which vaporizes the blockage, treating the condition.
Laser may also be used in treating aneurysms too complex for traditional surgical methods. Normal treatment involves clamping the diseased artery shut to prevent blood from passing through. To maintain blood supply to the brain, an alternative route is created using veins from other parts of the patient’s body. In a case where there weren’t enough alternative routes, doctors used lasers to successfully create a separate pathway without causing either a haemorrhage or a stroke.
2. Diabetic retinopathy
This is a condition that occurs as an offshoot of diabetes. High blood sugar damages the retina in three ways:
- the blood vessels in the retina can swell up and leak;
- the blood vessels can close, preventing blood from flowing altogether, or;
- abnormal blood vessels may grow on the retina. All of these instances can result to blindness.
Laser treatments for diabetic retinopathy
Lasers can be used for both early and advanced stages of diabetic retinopathy. The first approach is called focal photocoagulation. This is used to treat leaking blood vessels that cause the build-up of fluid in the macula. The ophthalmologist identifies the damaged blood vessels and closes them through a limited number of carefully calibrated laser burns.
The second treatment approach is called scatter photocoagulation, which is used to treat proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR), a more advanced form of diabetic retinopathy. Through carefully controlled laser burns, the ophthalmologist slows down the condition’s progress by killing abnormal blood vessels and preventing further growth.
Both procedures are of the outpatient kind and patients are not required to stay in the clinic for long. Topical anesthetics are used, although injectable varieties may also be utilized as needed—the latter can be uncomfortable. The procedures themselves are usually not painful, although some patients may report a stinging sensation. They may cause blurred vision up to a few hours after the surgery, as well as brief sensitivity to light, so patients are encouraged to wear sunglasses. Finally, PDR patients may be required to go back for follow-up treatments.
3. Retinal holes and tears
The term refers to condition where the retina develops breaks in the form of tear and holes. While this problem may not mean immediate loss of vision, it can lead to very serious complications. The breaks may allow fluids to seep through and build up behind the retina. This can cause the retina to separate from the wall of the eye, ultimately resulting to blindness. The condition can be a natural effect of aging, as the retina may weaken over time. It may also be hereditary or the result of certain conditions, including nearsightedness or injuries. Contrary to popular belief, sitting in front of a computer does not worsen the condition.
Laser treatment for retinal holes and tears
While retinal holes and tears may develop as a result of surgery, laser treatments are among the most effective approaches to treating the problem. In such cases, laser is used to create small burns around the holes and tears. The healing process that occurs afterwards “welds” and connects the broken areas, preventing the condition from getting worse. There are instances that the holes may enlarge, but not as a result of the laser treatment.
The procedure is an outpatient one and is completed quickly. Decreased activity is recommended over the next 10-14 days to better facilitate healing. Over this period, the patient may notice floaters, flashes, and decreased peripheral vision—these are natural. However, if the said symptoms worsen, the patient is encouraged to return to the doctor immediately for an evaluation.
Traditional surgery remains among the most effective ways to treat specific conditions, but the development of non-invasive procedures, laser technology especially, has allowed doctors to address disease without causing unwanted complications or compromises. This is particularly true for procedures that require very specific settings or extreme precision. While laser treatment is not without its own drawbacks, the decreased risks relative to traditional surgery, as well as the quick recovery and downtime needed more than make up for them.