By Pauline T. Mayer, Editor, Medical Device News Magazine
Laser technology sounds extremely futuristic, yet it has existed for many years in multiple industries.
Over the years, laser technology has been refined and utilized in various, making it one of the most diverse technologies on the planet.
Today, we’re specifically interested in the use of laser technology in healthcare or the medical field. How are lasers being used right now to assist people in the healthcare industry – and how may we see them used in the future as the tech gets even more impressive? Before we dive into the key use cases, it’s time for a quick overview of laser technology on the whole.
What is laser technology?
In all honesty, before we talk about laser technology there’s another question likely circling around your mind: what is a laser?
The technical definition is that a laser is a device that emits a beam of coherent light through an optical amplification process. Here’s a fun fact as well, the word “laser” is actually an acronym standing for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Clearly, that was too much of a mouthful to say every time, so we settled on “laser” as the terminology.
A simple explanation of how lasers work is that they send out a beam of highly concentrated light that gets more and more powerful. All light waves in the bean are of similar wavelengths, which allows them to perform a wide range of tasks. A basic use for lasers in the general world is as scanners. When you scan barcodes, lasers are used to identify what they mean.
One of the most common uses is laser hair removal, which takes laser technology and uses it in a completely different way. Here, the beams of light create heat that gradually eradicates hair follicles and stops them from growing back. Moving even further away from this, you see laser cutters in the manufacturing industry. With this technology, lasers are used to actually slice through materials with extreme precision.
Keeping all of this in mind, you begin to see the diversity surrounding laser technology. It can scan, heat things up, cut through objects, and do much more too. The use cases for lasers have increased over the years – particularly within the medical field. We’ll now go through some of the main ways you may see lasers in healthcare, plus some thoughts on the future.
Laser technology in healthcare
Some of you may already have a few ideas in your head when it comes to medical laser devices. However, the sheer number of uses – and the different ways lasers are being used – may shock you.
Laser eye surgery
We’ll begin with one of the more well-known and obvious uses; laser eye surgery. This procedure involves using laser beams to reshape the cornea, which corrects a person’s vision. It does this by using the intensity of the laser beam to basically remove part of the corneal tissue. Your surgeon can then reshape this and you will end up with much better vision. It’s an insane surgery that seems otherworldly and is only possible thanks to laser technology. Could you imagine people doing the same thing with regular surgical tools? For one, you wouldn’t get the same level of accuracy. Secondly, using lasers on your eyes means there’s no need for any stitches or incisions to be made.
Aside from laser eye surgery, we’ve progressed to the realm of general surgery using lasers. A variety of lasers can be used in these surgical scenarios, though a CO2 laser is probably the most common. Interestingly, this is the same type of laser used in many cosmetic procedures, such as laser skin resurfacing.
Some surgeries will use lasers to make bloodless cuts in the body, which makes the technology ideal for a range of skin surgeries or to remove certain tumors. At the same time, we’re seeing laser surgery in a completely different form to deal with issues such as kidney stones. There’s a procedure called laser lithotripsy that uses a laser to break up the stones. It’s attached to a small scope that goes into your urethra and will expel pulsed light waves at any stones it sees. The beauty of using lasers like this for surgical procedures is that it prevents the need for invasive surgeries in many cases. Thus, recovery time decreases while success rates increase.
In addition to these surgical cases, you may also see laser varicose vein surgery. Here, lasers are applied outside the body and the radiation from the light shrinks the damaged veins and forces them to seal off. From here, the veins are then absorbed by the body and removed as a waste product.
Laser dental procedures
The dental field is still part of the healthcare world and it uses lasers in a wide range of procedures. To begin, laser teeth whitening has been around for many years and is a proven way of removing stains from tooth enamel. While this is more of a cosmetic procedure than anything else, it does show another way that lasers are used!
Primarily, dentists will call upon lasers to help remove cavities in teeth. For a very long time, they would use small tools to scrape or drill away at tooth decay. Now, dentists can use laser technology to deliver concentrated bursts of light that burn away decay. It leads to faster treatments with more precision and greater efficacy.
We are increasingly seeing doctors and healthcare facilities call upon lasers to help make diagnoses. It’s believed that using laser beams or intense light can help to detect anomalies in the body. Specifically, there have been reports of people using lasers to detect cancerous tumors. The benefit of this is two-fold:
- Laser allow for less-invasive diagnostics
- Lasers can detect issues sooner, so treatment can begin earlier
Currently, laser diagnostics is in its infancy, so we aren’t seeing it used all over the place yet. Having said that, it certainly could be one of the biggest medical advancements of the modern age if it can be used everywhere at low costs.
The future of lasers in healthcare
It’s clear that lasers play a big role in healthcare and the medical field right now, but what can we expect in the future?
Improvements in existing laser technology
The biggest expectation is that laser technology will keep on improving. As a result, all of the things mentioned above will get even better. Surgical procedures can be more precise and we may learn how to utilize lasers for more surgeries. Who knows, there could be a time when traditional surgeries are no longer a thing and we only use lasers!
The same goes for other laser use cases – such as diagnostics. This technology should improve and get more efficient, meaning more diagnoses can be made. We will hopefully see a greater degree of accuracy and the ability to diagnose more conditions. Again, this would be revolutionary as it means more people can be diagnosed sooner, which increases the survival rate of many conditions.
As lasers improve, the cost of using them should also come down. This has been the case for most medical technologies in the last few decades. They start off as rare things that cost loads of money but gradually become easier to implement and more cost-effective. Hopefully, the same happens to lasers.
One final thing to note about lasers improving is the reduction of side effects. Right now, laser treatments can lead to certain side effects or extended recovery times. It’s hoped that – as technology advances – we will see few side effects and people can recover from laser treatments a lot faster. Thus, they are more accessible to everyone.
Lasers replace stitches
Stitches are needed to sew wounds and allow the body to heal. The problem is that they can be unhygienic and require regular cleaning, plus they may leave lifelong scars. There have already been experiments and tests using lasers to replace stitches.
Ironically, this calls upon old science that many doctors used before technology was a thing. People would use extreme heat to cauterize wounds and seal them off. Lasers can do a similar thing but with less pain and less scarring. It’s predicted that we could see lasers replace stitches in the not-too-distant future, meaning intense scarring could be a thing of the past.
In conclusion, laser technology is one of the most critical advancements the medical field has ever seen. We’re witnessing a growing range of uses that stem from cosmetic treatments to serious surgical procedures. The versatility and flexibility of lasers make them a must-have piece of tech in healthcare, and we’re excited to see where this goes in the future.
Advancements will make existing laser treatments/uses even better and more affordable. There may also be new use cases for them that can transform the way some surgeries are carried out or certain diseases are treated. Either way, it presents exciting prospects that people working in the medical field should highly anticipate.