What to Know About Robotic Surgery

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on March 10, 2024
4 min read

Sometimes doctors need help during surgery, especially for operations that call for smaller, more precise movements. That’s where robotic surgery comes in. Robotic or robot-assisted surgery lets doctors carry out tricky medical procedures with more accuracy and control.

Doctors typically use it during operations that need small incisions or cuts (minimally invasive surgery). But it’s used in traditional surgery, too.

Robotic surgery has been around since the 1970s. NASA first sponsored a project to study robotic-assisted surgery for astronauts and soldiers who can’t get to human surgeons. Researchers have also explored using this type of surgery during natural disasters. Here’s a brief history of robot-assisted surgery:

  • 1985: PUMA 560 carried out the first robotic surgery, a brain biopsy
  • 1988: Doctors used PROBOT during prostate surgery
  • 1992: ROBODOC assisted doctors during a leg operation
  • 1990s: Introduction of the robotic surgery system that most doctors use today

Robotic surgery systems use mechanical arms to carry out operations. A camera is attached to one arm, while other arms grip tiny tools the doctor uses during surgery. The doctor sits at a console nearby where they control the arms and can see the surgical site in high-definition 3D.

It’s similar to playing a video game, where the doctor uses a controller to command the movements of the mechanical arms. Keep in mind that your doctor is always in control of the robot. It only does what the surgeon directs it to do and can’t make decisions on its own. Doctors need training to use robotic surgery equipment.

Doctors use robotic surgery to treat a wide range of health issues, including:

Gastrointestinal conditions, such as diseases of the:

  • Colon
  • Rectum
  • Liver
  • Biliary tract
  • Gallbladder
  • Esophagus
  • Stomach
  • Pancreas

Achalasia, or trouble swallowing, can also be treated with robotic surgery. So can hernia repair.

Genitourinary tract problems, such as:

  • Pelvic prolapse
  • Fibroids
  • Endometriosis
  • Hysterectomy
  • Abnormal uterine bleeding
  • Issues with the prostate, kidney, adrenal glands, or bladder

Orthopedic/neurologic conditions, such as:

  • Degenerative disk disease
  • Herniated disk
  • Scoliosis
  • Spinal stenosis

Issues involving the head and neck, such as:

  • Cancer
  • Sleep apnea
  • Tonsilitis
  • Laryngeal cleft
  • Tumor removal

Robotic surgery can also treat:

  • Obesity, including gastric bypass and gastric sleeve surgery
  • Heart and lung problems

Compared to conventional surgery, robotic surgery is more precise and gives doctors more control and range of motion. Robotic arms can pivot 360 degrees and reach out-of-the-way areas of the human body. Before robotic surgery, some operations were challenging or even impossible to do. With 3D viewing, they can also see the surgical site more clearly, even microscopic structures.

Other advantages of robotic surgery include:

  • Less pain and bleeding
  • Fewer problems after surgery, such as infection
  • Shorter hospital stays (usually 1-2 nights)
  • Faster healing (full recovery within 6 weeks)
  • Faster return to daily activities
  • Less scarring
  • Better overall quality of life after surgery

Like traditional surgery, there’s a chance of infection and other problems. Robotic surgery is also more expensive and takes longer to set up compared to typical surgeries. Talk to your doctor about whether robotic surgery is right for your health condition.

Many hospitals in the U.S and Europe now use robotic surgery to treat a broad spectrum of medical conditions. At least 2,200 American hospitals have purchased this type of technology. Researchers and companies continue to make smaller and more lightweight robotic surgery prototypes, along with new training programs for safer surgeries.

Augmented and virtual reality training

Before heading into the operating room, doctors can use virtual reality (VR) to practice robotic surgery. A VR simulator shows a true-to-life 3D view of what doctors can expect during operations and helps them plan and carry out surgeries specific to their patients before doing them in real life.

Using augmented reality (AR), doctors can put real-time patient images onto 3D models to highlight specific body parts and differences in anatomy. In VR and AR, parts of the body that are hard to see with the human eye become easily visible using infrared and other technologies.

Technology breakthroughs

Over the years, robotic surgery systems have become more streamlined and comfortable for doctors to use. And the technology that powers these systems continues to improve. They have upgraded features like near-infrared technology and enhanced 3D cameras, which supply views that are magnified by 10 times.

Doctors have even completed surgery on someone in Europe -- while in the U.S. -- using a high-speed fiber-optic connection. This breakthrough could one day allow doctors on Earth to offer surgical care to astronauts on space missions. Researchers will first need to iron out data transmission, signal delay, gravity, and equipment weight issues.

Researchers are also studying fully automated robotic surgeries, meaning surgery without the help of humans. This type of surgery involves a self-controlled robotic system and would need algorithms that automatically understand surgical steps as well as the human body.