Vibrating surgical tool shows potential to improve accuracy in operations

The accuracy of surgical tools used in operations could be improved with a small vibrating device that allows surgeons to receive feedback when they encounter different shapes and textures inside their patients’ bodies.

Engineers at Hiroshima University in Japan have developed such a device that can be attached to any existing hand-held surgical tool without requiring extra training for doctors.

During minimally invasive surgeries, surgeons rely on long, thin, metal tools to explore their patients’ bodies. Surgeries such as these are common because they reduce the size of surgical cuts and minimise scarring, but surgeons can no longer use their fingers to directly touch patients to sense essential information about their organs.

“We started this work six years ago, trying to enhance human fingertip sensitivity, but in 2012 I had the idea that increased sensitivity could be valuable during minimally invasive surgeries. Typical medical tools obtain information about the patient’s condition. There are very few devices that aim to enhance the doctor’s skill,” said Dr Yuichi Kurita, lead author of the study.

The vibrator, called PZT Actuator, attaches to a surgeon’s favourite surgical tool and vibrates in the surgeon’s palm at a constant rate.

The vibrations are so subtle they cannot be sensed on their own but the constant, uniform vibration enhances the surgeon’s sensitivity to other, irregular sensations.

The natural variations of touching different tissues with a metal tool may normally be too subtle for the surgeon to detect, but the constant vibrations supplied by the PZT Actuator boost the sensation to a noticeable level.

Volunteers were blindfolded and asked to use surgical forceps with the PZT Actuator attached to the handle to identify different textures of sandpaper and find a small Styrofoam ball inside a cup filled with silicone. These tests mimic detecting tissue texture and identifying a solid tumour.

The results of these tests and other analysis revealed that there is a range of vibration intensity that significantly improves anyone’s sensitivity. The tool does not need to be fine-tuned to each user’s unique sense of touch, meaning the PZT Actuator should be easy to adapt to wide usage.

The PZT Actuator remains safe for patients because the device is only on the handles of the surgeon’s tools, not inside the patient’s body. The vibrations are so subtle that they do not shake the tool. The electrical power supply is also safe for doctors and patients.

“Our next set of experiments will confirm the usefulness of the PZT Actuator in surgical situations. Before we can give this tool to surgeons, we must also develop a method to maintain good hygiene of the device so it is always safe for patients,” said Kurita.

A flexible, soft, robotic arm inspired by the tentacles of an octopus was demonstrated by Italian researchers last year that could improve the safety of surgical operations. 

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