Robotic arms could give surgeons a hand in future spinal surgery

Spinal conditions such as scoliosis and kyphosis could be rectified with the help of robotic arms that semi-autonomously drill holes into individual vertebrae.

robotic arms
Prof Philip Breedon with two robot arms (Pic: Nottingham Trent University)

The technology promises to deliver previously unachieved levels of accuracy, partly because the robotic arms move in unison and naturally with the patient’s spine during the operation whilst drilling.

The advance forms part of research being led by Prof. Philip Breedon at Nottingham Trent University’s Medical Design Research Group. The team also explored the use of augmented reality to provide surgeons with live visual feedback to illustrate the depth of each hole as it is drilled. Accuracy of drilling has been recorded at 0.1mm.

“Surgeons performing life-changing operations to correct spinal conditions such as scoliosis or kyphosis have to ensure pinpoint levels of accuracy are achieved to avoid causing unnecessary and potentially serious injuries,” said Prof. Breedon.

“This technology promises to deliver greater levels of accuracy than ever previously achieved – or even humanly possible – to improve the safety and efficiency of such procedures which are needed by people with serious spinal conditions.”

According to Nottingham Trent, the holes drilled in the vertebrae are used to insert pedicle screws which are attached to deformity rod reducers that allow surgeons to lever individual vertebrae and realign the spine.

The two robotic arms – datum and tooling – work together during the procedure. The datum robot is secured to vertebrae and moves in unison with it to relay data on this movement instantaneously to a computer. The tooling robot then adjusts automatically so that it remains on its pre-defined path and continues to drill accurately.

The research has been undertaken in collaboration with Prof. David Brown of Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology and consultant spinal surgeon Prof. Bronek Boszczyk, head of Spinal Surgery at Benedictus Krankenhaus Tutzing, Germany, and a visiting Prof. at Nottingham Trent University.

“It is paramount that spinal procedures are carried out with total accuracy in order to minimise what can be substantial risks to a patient,” said Prof. Boszczyk. “This technology has the potential to minimise those risks by performing a key part of the operation with accuracy which cannot be achieved by a human hand.”