A Primer on Medical Lasers

From diagnosis and imaging to surgery and therapy, lasers have become increasingly valuable in modern medicine and medical laser manufacturers work to provide the best equipment possible. Many patients are not entirely familiar with how or why medical lasers are used; some basic information can help alleviate concerns about laser treatments.

How Lasers Are Used

Lasers come in many different forms but work on the same basic principle: a gas or crystal medium is excited to produce light of a specific wavelength that is focused into a narrow, high-intensity beam. In medical practices, lasers are relied on for their ability to precisely deliver strong non-ionizing radiation to a specific region of tissue. How the energy interacts with tissue depends on the laser’s wavelength and whether the beam is continuous or pulsed—most commonly, lasers are used to selectively cut or destroy tissue by heating or photochemical reactions, but milder interactions can be analyzed for imaging purposes.

Applications

Many laser treatments take advantage of the highly focused light and how tissues interact with different wavelengths. Various surgeries use lasers in place of scalpels for clean, bloodless incisions—the heat dissipation immediately cauterizes surrounding tissues, and recovery is relatively swift due to minimal invasion and use of chemicals. A few specific applications include:

  • Dermatology—treating melanoma, removing hair and tattoos or managing scars
  • Cancer diagnosis, including laser mammography
  • Angioplasty or lithotripsy, done by inserting optical fibers to deliver the beam to vessel obstructions or kidney stones
  • Targeted destruction of tumors by stimulating photosensitizing agents with a laser

Standards and Regulations

While medical lasers are valuable for minimally-invasive treatments with short recovery time, the advanced equipment necessary to produce laser beams requires training to handle safely. Any hospital or medical clinic where laser treatments are performed will have a committee for assessing technicians and making sure they are properly trained. These regulations ensure the safety of both patients and staff, allowing laser treatments as a viable option.