It took nearly a hundred years for lasers to become the standard surgical tool that they are today. Lasers are based on a theory developed by Albert Einstein very early in the twentieth century. The first working surgical laser, the carbon dioxide laser, was developed by scientists at Bell Laboratories in 1964. In recent years, lasers have been incorporated into a wide variety of treatments – from vision correction and surgical incisions to skin-smoothing treatments and tattoo removal!
The benefits of surgical lasers
Compared to traditional scalpels, surgical lasers provide many benefits for both doctors and patients:
1. Because the laser beam is more precisely controlled (by a computer), surgeons are able to perform complex micro-procedures with far more accuracy than would be possible with mechanical instruments.
2. The laser cauterizes blood vessels as it works, minimizing blood loss and improving the surgeon’s view of the area.
3. Because the surgeon’s hands and tools do not come in contact with the patient’s body, infection is minimized.
4. The laser effectively penetrates the treated area without trauma to surrounding tissue -- lowering the risk of complications. As a result, laser surgery is often less time-consuming and less extensive than traditional surgery. Laser surgery produces less scarring, less post-operative pain, and a shorter recovery period.
How these lasers work
Unlike the light from a standard light bulb, which is made up of many colors scattering in various directions, laser light waves are identical in color, wavelength and direction. These properties make it possible to focus a laser beam precisely and powerfully. With computerized controls, a doctor can also control the duration of the pulse and/or the intensity of the light.
Types of lasers used in cosmetic surgery
Many different lasers have been developed for a wide range of conditions treated by cosmetic surgeons. Some of the most popular are:
• The CO2 (carbon dioxide) laser was first developed as a powerful incision tool, but it can also be used in short bursts for skin resurfacing. The rapid pulses prevent heat from being absorbed by surrounding tissue.
• The Argon laser produces light that is absorbed by hemoglobin. This laser is used to treat blood vessel conditions like port wine stains, red birthmarks, cherry angiomas and rosacea.
• The Erbium/YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet) laser generates a gentle beam that penetrates less deeply than the CO2 laser. It produces less dramatic results, but also causes less redness and allows for more rapid healing. It is most often used for superficial skin conditions such as fine wrinkles.
• The Q-switched ruby and Q-switched alexandrite lasers produce rapid bursts of red light that are absorbed by melanin, making them especially effective in removing brown spots and some tattoos. With the pulses set for a longer duration, these lasers are effectively used for hair removal.
• The yellow-pulsed dye laser, based on an organic dye, creates a yellow light that is absorbed by hemoglobin. It is most often used to treat blood vessel disorders, including spider veins on the face, legs or other areas.
• The Argon-pumped tunable dye laser can produce yellow or green light; it is frequently used to treat skin cancer.
• The copper vapor laser produces yellow and green light; it effectively reduces brown pigment, light sunspots, and freckles.
• The Q-switched neodymium:YAG (Nd:YAG) laser produces an infra-red light used to remove dark tattoos and deep pigmented lesions. Its green light work is used for removing orange-red tattoos as well as unwanted hair.
• Semiconductor lasers are being tested in surgical settings. These lasers may be widely used in the future since they are economical to produce and operate.
• Recent research indicates that combining laser skin resurfacing with other cosmetic procedures, such as eyelid surgery, browlift, facelift or liposuction, may enhance results.
• Botox injections, often given to hide facial lines, are now being used by some doctors to prepare the face for laser skin resurfacing. Botox is reported to relax the affected area and make wrinkles easier to remove.
• New, improved, vision-correction surgeries called “custom ablation” are likely to show up in the U.S. soon. This new laser procedure is expected to offer even better results than the currently popular LASIK procedures.
• In some cases, combining two lasers for facial resurfacing may be just as beneficial as a facelift. The CO2 laser has been used along with the Erbium/YAG laser with excellent results. The deep penetration of the CO2 laser causes the skin to contract and tighten, while the Erbium/YAG laser removes surface lines and wrinkles. Such a combination provides a welcome option for many prospective facelift patients – the laser combination offers less scarring as well as a shorter healing time. Here again the laser has proven to be superior to the scalpel!