Health & Wellness: Robotic Surgery for Back Pain

Sometimes it seems as if all the world suffers from back pain.

Dr. Jae Lim, a pioneer in robotic brain and spine surgery, who is principal neurosurgeon with Atlantic Brain and Spine in both Fairfax and Leesburg, notes that more than half of all working Americans at some point in their life will suffer from back pain.

But, he says, “spine surgery is the last resort.” A top rated neurosurgeon in Northern Virginia, Lim has been in this area for a decade, previously practicing on the West Coast. He is also an assistant clinical professor of neurosurgery at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Medical School.

“Back pain is one of the most common work-related injuries,” Lim said in a recent interview. But the great majority of sufferers do not need surgery, he maintains.

Most painful aches should go away after a few weeks, and can be aided by an over-the-counter pain relieving medications.

Of more concern is the ache that does not go away, with radiating pain in the legs that may signify compression of the spinal nerve, a bulging disc, a fracture or bone spurs, according to Lim.

Whether or not to contemplate surgery depends on the symptoms. Sometimes the pain is a serious nerve injury and does not require a surgical solution.

Some injuries need attention right away, through an MRI or CT-scan. Once the pain is under control, the patient may respond. But, if the pain is still bad, a patient should keep the weight off so as to not inflame the muscles attached to the spine.

“Spinal pain is not well understood,” Lim says, explaining that he needs to know what causes the pain and, further, the kind of pain it is. It could be purely muscle pain caused by aggravation or stretching the ligaments or a ruptured disc, Lim notes.

Discs form the main support of the spine. If the support is not there and the muscular structure is trying to make up for it—“you get fatigued and the back goes into spasm,” he says. Pain can be in the nerves around the discs and the spinal cord, resulting in further pain to the back and the legs.

“No spinal surgery is trivial,” Lim says, although the technology and anesthesia are quite safe. With the advance of robotic surgery, spine operations now can be done on older patients—“sometimes patients in their 90s,” Lim says.

The minimally invasive mechanical guidance technique, while it has become standard for urology, prostate and general surgery operations, is not, however, standard for spine surgery.

“The spine is complex; it’s very complicated,” according to Lim.

But he says he is a great believer in the benefits of robotic surgery, calling it “faster, safer and better,” leading to better outcomes and faster recovery times for patients. The technique has been recognized as providing greater accuracy and efficiency compared with standard surgical techniques, and tends to significantly reduce complications during and after surgery.

Learn more about Dr. Jae Lim and his practice at

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