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Doctors Turn To Robot For Help With Risky Scoliosis Surgeries

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Robots are everywhere these days, doing all sorts of jobs -- from making cars to vacuuming our floors.

Now, they're invading the operating room, helping with everything from knee replacement to brain surgery.

CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez says robots are especially helpful, though, in scoliosis surgery because straightening the spine with all sorts of screws and rods is pretty risky around the spinal cord.

Colby Alfieri, 15, has a scar down her spine after having scoliosis surgery. (Credit: CBS2)

Colby Alfieri looks about as normal and healthy as any 15-year-old, but the huge incision down her back tells a different story.

Like a number of teenage girls, Colby had scoliosis.

"It measured about 65 degrees, so it was a fairly large curve, but she had completed growth. So the issue with her was really risk of the curve progressing as she gets older," said Dr. Roger Widmann, of New York's Hospital for Special Surgery.

That meant surgery.

But Colby is also an avid and talented volleyball player, so she wanted to make sure she could continue to play.

Convincing her of the need for surgery took some doing because her scoliosis wasn't really bothering her.

"I was like, 'Well, it's not that painful, I guess I could live with it,' but I also kind of knew that I needed it since my curve was so bad,'" Colby said.

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Scoliosis surgery usually involves the placement of a number of screws and rods, all just millimeters from the spinal cord and major blood vessels.

Doctors use the Mazor X robot to help during scoliosis surgery. (Credit: Medtronic)

Enter the Mazor X robot, a third-generation spine robot that acts as a kind of high-tech GPS navigation system for the surgeon.

"The navigation allows you very accurate verification of where you know you are in space based on your knowledge of anatomy," Widmann said. "Things that are going into the bone, you can verify that it's within bone and not impinging on either nerve or artery or other structures."

Just a few months post-op, Colby is back at school and playing the sport she loves.

"I feel great. I feel like everything's back to normal, and I'm really excited to be able to play volleyball again," she said.

Scoliosis is eight times more common in young women than men and most don't need surgery. Braces that stabilize the spine during puberty growth spurts are very effective, but getting teens to wear those braces for many months at a time often isn't easy.

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