Decompression of Intervertebral Discs Using Laser Energy (Laser Discectomy) or Radiofrequency Coblation (DISC Nucleoplasty™)


Laser energy (laser discectomy) and radiofrequency (RF) coblation (nucleoplasty) are being evaluated for decompression of the intervertebral disc. For laser disectomy under fluoroscopic guidance, a needle or catheter is inserted into the disc nucleus, and a laser beam directed through it to vaporize tissue. For DISC nucleoplasty™, bipolar radiofrequency energy is directed into the disc to ablate tissue.

A variety of minimally invasive techniques have been investigated over the years as a treatment of low back pain related to disc disease. Techniques can be broadly divided into techniques that are designed to remove or ablate disc material and thus decompress the disc, and those designed to alter the biomechanics of the disc annulus. The former category includes chymopapain injection, automated percutaneous lumbar discectomy, laser discectomy, and most recently, disc decompression using radiofrequency energy, referred to as a DISC nucleoplasty™.

Techniques that alter the biomechanics of the disc (disc annulus) include intradiscal electrothermal annuloplasty (i.e., the percutaneous intradiscal electrothermal annuloplasty [IDET] procedure) or percutaneous intradiscal radiofrequency thermocoagulation (PIRFT). It should be noted that 3 of these procedures use radiofrequency energy -- disc nucleoplasty, IDET and PIRFT – but apply the energy in distinctly different ways such that the procedures are unique.

Patients considered candidates for DISC nucleoplasty™ or laser discectomy include patients with bulging discs and sciatica. In contrast, the presence of a herniated disc is typically considered a contraindication for the IDET or PIRFT procedure. The IDET and PIRFT procedures, chymopapain injection, and automated percutaneous lumber discectomy are considered in separate policies. Laser discectomy and DISC nucleoplasty™ are the subjects of this policy.

A variety of different lasers have been investigated for laser discectomy, including YAG, KTP, holmium, argon, and carbon dioxide lasers. Due to differences in absorption, the energy requirements and the rate of application differ among the lasers. In addition, it is unknown how much disc material must be removed to achieve decompression. Therefore, protocols vary according to the length of treatment, but typically the laser is activated for brief periods only.

The Disc nucleoplasty™ procedure uses bipolar radiofrequency energy in a process referred to as coblation technology. The technique consists of small, multiple electrodes that emit a fraction of the energy required by traditional radiofrequency energy systems. The result is that a portion of nucleus tissue is ablated, not with heat, but with a low-temperature plasma field of ionized particles. These particles have sufficient energy to break organic molecular bonds within tissue, creating small channels in the disc. The proposed advantage of this coblation technology is that the procedure provides for a controlled and highly localized ablation, resulting in minimal therapy damage to surrounding tissue.

A number of laser devices have received FDA 510(k) clearance for incision, excision, resection, ablation, vaporization, and coagulation of tissue. Intended uses described in FDA summaries include a wide variety of procedures, including percutaneous discectomy. Trimedyne, Inc. received 510(k) clearance in 2002 for the Trimedyne® Holmium Laser System Ho1mium:Yttrium Aluminum Garnet (Ho1mium:YAG), RevoLix Duo™ Laser System in 2007, and Quanta System LITHO Laser System in 2009. All were cleared, based on equivalence with predicate devices for percutaneous laser disc decompression/discectomy, including foraminoplasty, percutaneous cervical disc decompression/discectomy, and percutaneous thoracic disc decompression/discectomy. The summary for the Trimedyne system states that indications for cervical and thoracic decompression/discectomy include uncomplicated ruptured or herniated discs, sensory changes, imaging consistent with findings, and symptoms unresponsive to 12 weeks of conservative treatment. Indications for treatment of cervical discs also include positive nerve conduction studies.

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