Laser revision can help treat scars

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Scars tell a story, but no matter what the cause, they can have a negative impact on a person’s life. Scars can itch, cause discomfort or pain and reduce a person’s range of motion. They can also be a cosmetic concern.

No scar can be 100 percent removed, but new laser scar revision techniques have helped shrink and relax the scar tissue, giving it the appearance and flexibility closer to that of normal skin. The lasers can help reduce scar thickness and improve discoloration as well, said Dr. Taryn Travis, a burn surgeon at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

“Measurable improvements are possible in just a few months’ time, helping patients resume a normal lifestyle,” Dr. Travis said.

Scars form when the body is injured and repairs itself with layers of collagen, which makes up connective tissue. Collagen can form in layers and bundles, making the skin look, feel and behave differently than the damaged tissue it replaced. Scars aren’t all alike either, Dr. Travis said.

“Everyone scars differently, for reasons we don’t completely understand—an injury in one person might result in completely different scarring characteristics than in another person,” Dr. Travis said, adding that people with darker skin, particularly those with African American and East Asian lineage, are more at risk for severe scarring.

Some scars can impact a patient’s quality of life. Scar tissue is naturally tighter, denser and stiffer than uninjured skin, so scarring near a joint can limit a person’s mobility, Dr. Travis said.

The laser treatment makes the problem area more supple and thins the scarred skin. This improves the patient’s range of motion. The treatment can also improve scars that feel itchy or painful, too.

So how does the laser treatment work? During the session, lasers target the scar collagen and create many small, barely visible holes that release tension in the tissue. More tension is released through follow-up sessions and flexibility of the scar improves.

Patients who receive laser treatments don’t have significant side effects or down time, Dr. Travis said.

“After just one session, 96.5 percent of patients treated at the Burn Center report improvement in their scarring in the form of increased range of motion or reduction of pain, itch or other discomfort,” Dr. Travis said.

The laser treatments are successful – but experts still aren’t sure exactly why it works at the cellular level.

“Existing research is largely incomplete. We are working diligently to fill the gaps via multiple studies, including some with patients who volunteer to participate here at the Hospital Center,” Dr. Travis said. “With time, we will unlock the secrets of the laser’s efficacy.”

MedStar Washington Hospital Center is on the cutting edge as the only adult medical facility in the Washington, D.C. area to own and operate this particular specialized laser equipment. The hospital generally performs around 200 treatment sessions each year.

Patients with thick and problematic scarring may want to consider laser treatment. To get started, the patient meets with a burn rehabilitation therapist, who takes photographs and measures the scar to assess range of motion, functionality and other symptoms. The next meeting is with the surgeon, who determines the best course of action and how many treatments will be needed.

Most patients with serious scars have an average of six treatments with each about four weeks apart. The treatments typically take about 45 minutes or less. Patients are sedated during the procedure and general anesthesia is usually not needed unless large areas of the neck or face are being treated, Dr. Travis said.

Patients who undergo laser treatments may experience a sunburn-like feeling, which can be managed with over-the-counter ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Most patients can return to bathing, wearing regular clothing and the normal activities the following day.

Patients see even better results from laser treatments through rehabilitation. The rehabilitation therapists at MedStar Washington Hospital Center gauge patients’ functionality and help them get comfortable with their new strength and mobility. Social workers, psychologists and other specialists also play a role in patients’ recovery journey.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, MedStar Washington Hospital Center has worked to make patients feel valued while following all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines carefully and consistently, with treatments that are quick and minimally invasive.

“If scars are making life difficult for you or a loved one, we encourage you to reach out to the Burn Center team to discuss your needs with our specialists,” Dr. Travis said. “Laser revision can help improve your quality of life significantly.”

Read more about laser scar revision in a blog post on the MedStar Washington Hospital Center website.


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