Researchers at Dartmouth College have developed a handheld "wand" optical tracking system which it says makes back surgery faster, safer and cheaper. Described as "a Google Maps for the body," the system provides real-time 3-dimensional tracking to help guide the surgeon as they operate.

Though conventional MRI and CT scans are great for finding spinal problems, identifying a safe surgical route through the body to the issue can be more challenging. This is partly because muscle and bone may move after a scan is taken. This is where real-time imaging comes in.

The system is made up of a surgical microscope along with two cameras used to generate 3D digital images. It's similar to approaches used in brain surgery, but has never been applied in spinal surgery before, the researchers say.

It can be used to show where the surgeon needs to apply tools and implants, which the researchers think could save around 30 minutes, as it removes the need for other more time-consuming means of marking areas of the spine.

The team has tested the technology on pigs before reducing it in size to a handheld "wand." "By rendering images real-time, with a simple handheld tool, we believe we can make surgeries safer and less costly in the future," says Keith Paulsen, an author of the research.

More funding has been granted by The National of Institutes of Health, with the intention of testing the technology on humans. The researchers say it will likely be years before the system is widely available for surgery.

The team's research has been published in the journal Operative Neurosurgery.

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