Human spines are complex. No one appreciates that more than the specialists who bring their skills to bear on the complex mass of interwoven bones, nerves, muscles, tendons, and ligaments during a back operation.

That’s why specialists at Braemar Hospital are welcoming a new piece of technology that will make their job safer, easier and provide greater surety for patients.

The O-Arm surgical imaging and guidance system takes pictures and provides an inside view of what’s happening with the spine before and during surgery. It is different from a traditional X-ray machine or CT scanner because it can provide “real-time” and high quality images in two or three dimensions and a detailed look at the anatomy during an operation.

It has been likened to the difference between tracking a geographic location with a map and having GPS in your car or mobile device.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Braemar chief executive Paul Bennett. “It gives our specialists the best tools that in turn will get the best outcomes for patients.”

The O-Arm looks like a giant letter ‘O’, hence the name. But the technology behind it is complex. It gives surgeons the ability to navigate a 3-D map of the body part undergoing surgery, which allows them to pinpoint more accurately the exact position of surgical instruments during a procedure. Surgeons say it’s like a “second-sight.”

The improved technology reduces invasiveness and risk for patients; it also allows surgeons to make informed decisions during surgery and precisely navigate through delicate anatomy avoiding critical structures in the spine. Because of the heightened level of accuracy, there is less chance that a procedure will need to be revisited.

While the image quality is similar to a CT image, radiation exposure is significantly reduced, making the procedure safer for surgeons and staff.

“Spinal surgery has been undergoing a revolution in the past 10-15 years. The instrumentation is moving at a fast pace,” says Paul Bennett.  “This is a big step for surgeons who have trained for decades to be accurate and safe and need technology to support them.”

The technology is used at both of New Zealand’s spinal trauma centres in Auckland and Christchurch.

The O-Arm is the second big-ticket technology item at Braemar this year. In January, it was the first hospital in Australasia to install ultra-high definition (4K) imaging in its operating theatres, enabling surgeons to carry out laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery with images that closely replicate what their naked eye would see looking into the body.