Aberdeen medics pioneer surgical ‘satnav’ for spine

Neurosurgeon Mahmoud Kamel with Aberdeen Royal Infirmary's new spinal scanner. Picture: Derek Ironside
Neurosurgeon Mahmoud Kamel with Aberdeen Royal Infirmary's new spinal scanner. Picture: Derek Ironside
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A STATE-OF-THE-ART scanner which acts as a “satnav” for surgeons is helping to transform the lives of patients with spinal injuries.

Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (ARI) has installed Scotland’s first O-Arm scanner, which can be used while the patient is unconscious, to generate high-resolution 3D images of patients’ spine, bone and soft tissue structures,

The O-shape encircles the patient’s body and takes around 10 seconds to produce an image which the surgeon can use to guide them through the body during the procedure.

The sophisticated machine improves the speed and accuracy of operations, removes the need for repeated X-rays, and improves recovery time for patients.

One of the first patients to benefit from this pioneering technology described her procedure as “a miracle”, after years of excruciating back pain.

Mahmoud Kamel, a consultant neurosurgeon at the ARI, said: “It shows us the anatomy of the spine while we are operating.

“So if we are putting in screws then we can see them on the screen in real time. It allows us to work with maximum accuracy.”

Doctors are able to rotate and magnify the image to ensure the spinal cord and other vital parts of the patients remain safe while inserting screws to stabilise the spine.

Kamel said: “In the past we would have to make longer incisions in the back to see the anatomy of the spine. Now we can make small incisions to put the screws exactly where they need to be in the spine as we can use the image to see where we are.

“It means the procedure is less invasive, with a faster recovery time.”

At the end of the operation a further scan can be done to ensure that all of the metalwork is in the correct place or to make sure a tumour has been entirely removed.

Kamel added: “It really is much safer. When you put screws into the spine you are operating next to very sensitive nerves which can be damaged very easily and result in paralysis or serious spinal damage.

“It happens rarely but this equipment removes the risk almost entirely.”

NHS Grampian installed the game-changing device earlier this year, which has already been used in operations for 30 patients across the North of Scotland.

These patients have all been complex spinal cases, including those suffering from trauma from traffic collisions, tumours, and degenerative conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

The simple act of standing up was excruciatingly painful for Helen Singleton, who underwent a gruelling eight-hour procedure at the ARI in April to treat a long-running spinal problem.

The 70-year-old, who lives just outside Wick, in Caithness, had suffered from terrible back pain for more than a decade, leaving her unable to accomplish event the most 
basic tasks.

She said: “Apparently the vertebrae were slipping and trapping the spinal cord to the extent that I was in extreme pain and could not stand up straight.

“For any sort of release from the pain I had to bend down – I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t walk. I was very, very limited in what I could do.”

When she went to see a neurosurgeon three years ago, she was told that the surgery might help to reduce the pain but it was unlikely to solve the problem completely.

The grandmother of one said: “When I woke up from that procedure everything just felt totally different.

“I now refer to it as some sort of miracle from the results. It is absolutely amazing what they can do.”

She said: “I have been able to do things more or less straight away, which I haven’t been able to do for years.

“I remember sitting on the edge of the bed and bracing myself to stand up. There was nothing, no pain.

“I burst into tears and sat down again. It was just the most amazing thing.”

Singleton, who ran a dog boarding kennel for more than 20 years, is now undergoing physiotherapy to help her regain strength in her arms, legs and core.

She still experiences pain in her back but the surgery has given her a new lease of life.

Whereas before she could hardly walk, Singleton can now often be found gardening, riding her exercise bike or swimming.