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Oral soft tissue laser ablative and

coagulative efficiencies spectra
Dr. Peter Vitruk delves into the science behind ablative soft tissue lasers

The much praised clinical benefits and
ease of use of surgical and dental lasers are
enjoyed by millions of patients and by tens
of thousands of physicians, dentists, and
veterinarians worldwide. State-of-the-art
modern-day soft tissue lasers have made
many soft tissue procedures much simpler
and far more enjoyable for practitioners —
consider bloodless laser blepharoplasty and
laser frenectomy in Figures 1 and 2.
The key to the success of soft tissue
lasers is their ability to cut and coagulate the Figure 1: CO2 laser blepharoplasty in progress Figure 2: CO2 laser frenectomy in progress
soft tissue at the same time. Present work is (Photo courtesy of Edward M. Zimmerman, MD, Pres. American Board (Photo courtesy of Alan Winner, DDS, New York, New York)
aimed to derive the wavelength-dependent of Laser Surgery, Las Vegas, Nevada)

differences in photo-thermal ablation and

coagulation efficiencies for oral soft tissue
pulsed dental Near-IR Diode, Mid-IR Erbium
and IR CO2 lasers.1-24
Even though the soft tissue photo-
thermal ablation has been extensively
studied,5,6,17 there remains a discrepancy
between (a) the widely proliferated notion
about efficient Near-IR 800-1,100 nm laser
ablation of the oral soft tissue,25,26 and (b)
studies reporting the inefficient soft tissue
Near-IR absorption/ablation.5,6,17,18
Figure 3: Near-IR wavelengths 810 and 980 nm from commercially available dental diode lasers are highly scattered and
Indeed, the notions about “the key to
weakly absorbed by the porcine soft tissue, resulting in slow and widespread photo-coagulation and no ablation
the usefulness of the Nd:YAG is that this
wavelength is highly absorbed in oral soft is 5 mm or more, and whose δ/α ratio [scat- reach vital structures in the vicinity of the
tissue”25, and “all currently available dental tering to absorption ratio] is larger than 10, target tissue. These vital structures … may
laser instruments and their emission wave- make good coagulators but poor scalpels. preferentially absorb near-infrared laser light
lengths have indications for use for incising, Such wavelengths are all in the near-infrared because of different optical properties and
excising … oral soft tissue surgery”26, (700-1400 nm) region.” may be heavily damaged before efficient
contradict an observation5 illustrated here Another review article17 reports that tissue ablation at the surface initiated.”18
by Figure 3: “Lasers whose extinction length “Using laser wavelengths where optical To address the preceding discrepan-
scattering is comparable to or dominant cies, present work utilizes the known optical
over tissue absorption is not conducive to absorption coefficient spectra of the oral
Prior to co-founding LuxarCare in 2002
and LightScalpel in 2005, Peter Vitruk, PhD, precise ablation” directly relates to Near-IR soft tissue’s four main chromophores —
MInstP, CPhys, held a variety of research and wavelengths 800-1,100 nm. water,1,2 melanin,3,4 hemoglobin (Hb), and
development positions around the globe. He
Furthermore, “Even in an idealized situ- oxyhemoglobin (HbO2)4-6 (see Figure 4) — in
was a Research Scientist with The Academy
of Sciences in the former USSR and a Visiting ation, application of high power laser [810 order to analyze the photo-thermal ablation
Research Fellow with Heriot-Watt University nm] light (e.g., 20 W) is necessary during (or photovaporolysis5) and photo-thermal
in Edinburgh, United Kingdom (UK). He later worked as RF-
several seconds, inducing tissue changes coagulation (or photopyrolysis5) efficien-
excited CO2 Laser Programs Manager with Synrad, Inc.,
and then as Chief Scientist/Laser Designer with Luxar/ESC/ that extend further into the tissue than can cies for the soft tissue dental lasers7 on
Lumenis. He has authored 10 patents and over 20 articles on be observed by the surgeon. An important the market today: Near-IR diodes at 808
RF-excited CO2 gas laser plasma and resonator technology
complicating factor in the use of this high- - 1,064 nm; Mid-IR Erbium lasers at 2,780
and is a Member of The Institute of Physics, London, UK.
Author can be contacted at power laser light, which penetrates deeply nm and 2,940 nm; and IR CO2 laser at
before being absorbed totally, is that it may 9,300 nm and 10,600 nm.

Reprint from Implant Practice US Volume 7 Number 6

Optical model for epithelium and
connective tissue (sub-epithelium)
Besides the absorption coefficient
spectra for the soft tissue’s main chromo-
phores, their respective spatial distributions
are taken into account through a simple
two-layer optical model depicted in Figure 5:
• The 100-300 µm thin8 epithelium
layer with its optical absorption
dominated by melanin and water.
• The sub-epithelium medium
(connective tissue, inclusive of
lamina propria and submucosa9,10)
with its optical absorption domi-
nated by water and hemoglobin/
75% water content is assumed for both
epithelium and sub-epithelium for conve-
nience; adjusting water content within
70-100% range does not significantly alter
Figure 4: Optical absorption coefficient spectra at different histologically relevant concentrations of water, hemoglobin,
main results and conclusions of this study.
oxyhemoglobin, and melanin based on data from references 1-6. Logarithmic scales are in use

Figure 5: Simplified optical model of oral soft tissue

consisting of (1) water-melanin rich epithelium layer, and
(2) water-hemoglobin-oxyhemoglobin rich sub-epithelium
medium (connective tissue inclusive of lamina propria and Figure 6: Simplified graphical representation of laser beam intensity attenuated inside the soft tissue
intensity [W/cm2] is IB; laser light intensity temperature ranging from the very high Ta
Photo-thermal laser-tissue immediately below the tissue surface is I0. (ablation temperature) at xa all the way down
interaction: absorption, ablation, Accordingly, the reflectivity of tissue’ surface to the coagulation threshold temperature
coagulation is (IB – I0)/IB, and the transmission is I0/IB. Tc at xc (i.e., Ta = 100ºC and Tc = 60ºC).
During photo-thermal laser-tissue inter- Inside the tissue, i.e., for x > 0, the laser Coagulation depth H = xc – xa, is defined
action, the laser beam energy is absorbed light intensity is exponentially attenuated: by 60-100ºC temperature range19-22 inside
(by tissue’s main chromophores-absorption the heat affected zone.
centers) and heats the tissue inside the I = I0 Exp [-x/A] (1)
irradiated volume, which leads to elevated Light absorption and scattering in
tissue temperatures that can result in tissue where 1/A is absorption coefficient from epithelium
ablation and coagulation. Figure 4 (or attenuation coefficient if light Since melanin is present in the epithe-
Consider, as shown in Figure 6, a one- scattering is taken into account). Assuming lium layer while the hemoglobin is not, and
dimensional approximation of a laser beam that laser intensity I0 is greater than intensity since there is no melanin in hemoglobin-
irradiating the tissue surface (at x=0) from Ia required (for a specific pulse duration t) rich connective tissue (sub-epithelium), the
the left (is graphically represented as a thin to ablate the tissue locally, the tissue abla- optical properties of epithelium and sub-
slice of a laser beam directed at the thin slice tion takes place in 0 < x < xa referred to as epithelium are analyzed separately and
of the tissue), assuming pulse duration is the “ablation zone” in Figure 6. Immediately independently from each other.
essentially shorter than Thermal Relaxation below the ablation zone the heat affected Similar to melanin content and pigmen-
Time discussed later. Incident laser beam zone xa < x < xc is located, with the tissue tation in human epidermis,3 the epithelium’s

2 Implant practice Volume 7 Number 6

volume fraction of melanin pigmentation
(presented in Figure 4) is estimated at
approximately 2% (very light pigmentation),
13% (moderate), and 30% (dark). Optical
absorption in epithelium at 800-1,100 nm
Near-IR wavelengths is highly dependent on
pigmentation but is relatively low due to very
thin epithelium (100-300 µm8).
Unlike Near-IR wavelengths, the Mid-IR
wavelengths (Erbium lasers) and IR wave-
lengths (CO2 laser) exhibit close to 100%
absorption in epithelium, which is of high
value for predictable laser photo-thermal
ablation of epithelium.11

Light absorption and scattering in

sub-epithelium connective tissue
Optical absorption depth spectrum for
connective tissue (sub-epithelium) with 75%
water and estimated 10% blood presence in
the human soft tissue12 (containing hemo-
Figure 7: Absorption (and estimated Near-IR attenuation) depth spectra of sub-epithelium (connective tissue). Logarithmic
globin (and/or oxyhemoglobin) at normal scale is in use
concentration of 150g/L5,6) is derived from
absorption coefficient spectra (presented temporal characteristics and tissue’ thermal in Figure 6, allows for the most efficient abla-
in Figure 4) for water1,2, hemoglobin and conductivity. tion of the irradiated tissue with minimum
oxyhemoglobin4-6 and is presented in Figure The rate of how fast the irradiated tissue coagulation and hemostasis underneath the
7. An estimate of the attenuation depth as diffuses the heat away is defined through ablated tissue. For instance, rapidly pulsed
an inverse of the sum of absorption co- the thermal diffusion time, or Thermal Erbium and CO2 lasers are efficient at cutting
efficient3-6 and reduced scattering coefficient Relaxation Time (presented in Figure 7) as with minimal coagulation in applications like
for whole blood (estimated through absorp- TR = A2/K,16,17 where A is optical absorp- char-free stage II implant uncovering, gingi-
tion to reduced scattering ratio from14), is tion (or Near-IR attenuation) depth discussed vectomy, frenectomy, biopsy, de-epitheliza-
presented as inset in Figure 7. Attenuation above. The physics behind thermal diffusivity tion, fibroma excision, etc.
depth is a more accurate representation of process is similar to diffusion and Brownian The least efficient heating of the irradiated
laser energy penetration into the tissue for motion first described in15. Coefficient K is tissue takes place when laser pulse energy
Near-IR wavelength where light scattering tissue’s thermal diffusivity; K = λ /(ϱ C) ≈ is low, and its duration is much longer than
dominates over absorption.3-6,14 0.155 (+/-0.007) mm2/sec (derived from heat TR. The least efficient cooling of the tissue
As can be seen from Figure 7, both conductivity λ ≈ 6.2-6.8 mW/cm ºC ; specific adjacent to the ablated zone takes place if
Erbium lasers (approximately 3,000 nm) heat capacity C ≈ 4.2 J/g ºC, and density ϱ time duration between laser pulses is much
and CO2 lasers (approximately 10,000 nm) ≈ 1 g/cm3 for liquid water for temperatures shorter than TR. For instance, long pulse
are highly efficiently absorbed by the soft in 37-100ºC range23). For practical consider- and continuous wave (CW) CO2 lasers are
tissue and, as will be shown, are efficient ation of often used 0.4 mm laser beam diam- less efficient cutters but provide for greater
at cutting and ablating the soft tissue purely eter on the tissue, the Thermal Relaxation depth of coagulation for excising/incising
radiantly (non-contact). At the same time, Time in Figure 7 is estimated approximately in highly vascular and inflamed tissues like
diode lasers (approximately 1,000 nm) are ≥1 sec for absorption (attenuation) depths in hemangioma.
highly inefficiently absorbed by the soft excess of 0.4 mm (i.e. when the 2-D radial
tissue, and therefore, cannot be used radi- heat conduction away from the axis of the Photo-thermal ablation efficiency
antly (non-contact) for cutting and ablating beam takes place). Soft tissue photo-thermal ablation (or
the soft tissue. Instead, Near-IR diodes are Practical implications of Thermal Relax- photovaporolysis5,6) is a process of vaporiza-
used as hot-tip contact thermal devices, ation Time concept are simple and yet very tion of intra- and extra-cellular water.5,6,17 For
whereas laser radiation heats the charred powerful for appropriate application of laser a fixed laser beam diameter (or spot size), the
glass tip and then the heat from the charred energy. volume of the tissue exposed to laser beam
tip is conducted into the soft tissue. The most efficient heating of the irradiated is proportional to the optical penetration (i.e.
tissue takes place when laser pulse energy absorption or Near-IR attenuation as defined
Thermal relaxation time is high and its duration is much shorter than above) depth. The shorter the penetration
Soft tissue ablation and coagula- TR. The most efficient cooling of the tissue depth — the less energy is required to ablate
tion efficiencies are influenced not only by adjacent to the ablated zone takes place if the tissue. The longer the optical penetration
absorption/attenuation spectra described time duration between laser pulses is much depth — the greater the volume of irradi-
in Figures 4 and 7, but also by laser pulse greater than TR. Short laser pulse, depicted ated tissue, and therefore, more energy is
required to ablate the tissue within the irradi-
ated volume of tissue.
The minimum energy density require-
ment to vaporize the irradiated soft tissue
can be calculated from the spatial distri-
bution of laser light intensity (1) inside the
irradiated tissue (see Figure 6) for different
wavelengths that are relevant to practical
soft tissue dental Near-IR Diode, Mid-IR
Erbium and IR CO2 lasers. Present anal-
ysis below covers conditions most suited
for high efficiency photo-thermal ablation
(pulse duration t ≤ TR) with minimum collat-
eral damage to the surrounding tissue (pulse
repetition rate f << 1/TR).
Consider a laser beam pulse charac-
terized by the following: 1) its duration t
is less than Thermal Relaxation Time TR
(for the thermal confinement of the laser
energy within the irradiated tissue); and 2)
Figure 8: Soft tissue ablation threshold energy density spectrum. Logarithmic scale is in use
its penetration (i.e., absorption or attenua-
tion defined previously) depth A is uniquely
defined by the laser wavelength and tissue
properties; and 3) for the Near-IR wave-
The key to the success of soft tissue lasers is their ability
lengths, the beam diameter is large enough to cut and coagulate the soft tissue at the same time.
so that its increase due to light scattering
is negligible as it propagates through the
tissue. Ablation depth is xa and coagula-
In order to calculate from (3) the ablation threshold intensities (see Figure 8)
tion depth is H = xa – xc, where the end
minimum (i.e. threshold) ablation energy due to extremely small volumes of irradiated
of coagulation zone xc is where the tissue
density ETH of laser beam, we consider tissue because of extremely short absorp-
temperature Tc equals 60ºC.
xa<<A conditions: tion depths (see Figure 7).
Let’s consider xa<<A conditions for

which both the “blow-off” and “steady-state”
ETH = t ITH = ϱ A ( C (Ta - Tb) + r ) (4) Spatial accuracy of photo-thermal
ablation models described in17 apply. For
laser beam intensity given by formula (1), the Near-IR 800-1,100 nm wavelengths
The ablation threshold energy density
laser energy deposited into the unit volume (dental diodes’ operating wavelengths)
ETH spectrum is presented in Figure 8, where
of the tissue (during laser pulse duration t) are poorly absorbed by scarce melanin
the Near-IR wavelengths 800-1,100 nm are
is proportional to the rate of laser beam’ in epithelium and by low concentration
characterized by 100s-1,000s times greater
intensity’s change: hemoglobin and oxyhemoglobin in sub-
photo-thermal ablation threshold energy
densities than Mid-IR and IR wavelengths epithelium connective tissue, which results
t dI/dx = - t I0 Exp [-x/A] / A = - t I / A (2) because of weak Near-IR absorption by the in multi-millimeter depth of laser energy
soft tissue’s chromophores. For the Near- penetration into the oral soft tissue. Such
Laser energy absorbed by the tissue heats up IR, the ablation threshold energy density is multi-millimeter ambiguity in tissue removal
the tissue. Soft tissue ablation (i.e., tissue’s the lowest when the beam diameter is large spatial accuracy at Near-IR wavelengths
water vaporization) intensity Ia at location enough so that its increase (due to scattering) (also cited in5 as “poor scalpels” and in17
x = xa can be derived from (2) as: is negligible as it propagates through the as “not conducive to precise ablation”)
tissue. For very small Near-IR beam diam- increases the collateral damage risk of over-
ϱ ( C (Ta - Tb) + r ) = t Ia / A = t I0 Exp [-xa/A] eters, the ablation threshold energy density heating both soft and hard dental structures
/ A (3) is significantly greater due to radial optical (enamel, dentin, implants, and bone) under-
scattering as the beam propagates through neath the connective soft tissue if photo-
where Tb is body temperature at 37ºC, Ta is the tissue. Figure 3 illustrates the high degree thermal ablation is attempted. Such risk is
water boiling temperature is 100ºC, C =4.2 of scattering and predicted absence of tissue referred to in18 as “vital structures … may
J/g ºC is specific heat capacity, r =2,260 J/g ablation at 810 and 980 nm. be heavily damaged before tissue ablation
is latent heat of water evaporation [27], and In sharp contrast to Near-IR wave- at the surface initiated”; the 810 nm soft
ϱ =1 g/cm3 is water density. The greater the lengths, the Mid-IR and IR wavelengths tissue absorption coefficient of 0.7 1/cm in18
laser beam pulse energy density t I0, the are highly energy efficient at ablating the makes its observations highly relevant to the
deeper (i.e. greater xa) the ablation. soft tissue photo-thermally with very low present analysis where 10% blood absorbs

Volume 7 Number 6 Implant practice 4

at the rate of approximately 0.4 1/cm at 810
nm (see Figure 4).
Unlike Near-IR wavelengths, the Mid-IR
wavelengths (Erbium lasers) and IR wave-
lengths (CO2 lasers) exhibit much shorter
absorption depths (see Figure 7), which
makes Mid-IR and IR lasers far more
spatially precise and safer in soft tissue
ablative applications.

Photo-thermal coagulation efficiency

Coagulation occurs as a denaturation of
soft tissue proteins that occurs in 60-100°C
temperature range19-22 leading to a significant
reduction in bleeding (and oozing of lymphatic
liquids) on the margins of ablated tissue
during laser ablation (and excision, incision)
procedures. Since blood is contained within
and transported through the blood vessels, Figure 9: Coagulation depth spectrum for ablation threshold conditions. Logarithmic scale is in use
the diameter of blood vessels B (estimated
to range from 21 to 40 µm with average efficiency; and is presented in Figure 9 for B then heats up the soft tissue through heat
value of 31 µm – from measurements in = 21-40 µm24, where absorption/attenuation conduction from hot glass tip: soft tissue
human cadaver gingival connective tissue24) depth A from Figure 7 is utilized to calculate is burned off (ablated) on contact with the
is a highly important spatial parameter that H from (5). hot charred glass tip, while the margins of
influences the efficiency of photocoagula- For H<<B (see Erbium laser wave- the burn are coagulated. Unlike non-contact
tion process. Photo-thermal coagulation is lengths in Figure 9), optical absorption and surgical lasers (such as CO2 or Erbium),
also accompanied by hemostasis due to coagulation depths are significantly smaller the soft tissue ablative diodes are contact
shrinkage of the walls of blood vessels (and than blood vessel diameters; coagulation thermal non-laser wavelength-independent
lymphatic vessels) due to collagen shrinkage takes place on relatively small spatial scale devices.
at increased temperatures. and cannot prevent bleeding from the blood When used in contact mode, the
Present analysis below covers condi- vessels severed during tissue ablation. Nd:YAG laser may function as a hot tip
tions most suited for high efficiency photo- For H>>B (diode laser wavelengths in cutting tool [6]. When used in non-contact
thermal ablation (pulse duration t ≤ TR) Figure 9), optical absorption (Near-IR attenu- mode, the Nd:YAG laser’s 1,064 nm wave-
with minimum collateral damage to the ation), and coagulation depths are significantly length is a highly efficient coagulator, but a
surrounding tissue (pulse repetition rate f greater than blood vessel diameters; coagula- poor scalpel, as it is highly scattered and
>> 1/TR). Laser light intensity, see Figure 6, tion takes place over extended volumes — far weakly absorbed by the soft tissue.5,6,17
is assumed at the ablation threshold ITH from away from ablation site where no coagulation The low absorption of the Nd:YAG wave-
(4), and xa<<A. is required. Extended thermal damage zones length may be attenuated (and, therefore,
For short laser pulses t << TR and for for Near-IR irradiated soft tissue are docu- its cutting efficiency may be enhanced) by
near-ablation threshold conditions (2)-(4) mented in18; the 810 nm soft tissue absorption the use of very high peak power6 typical for
above, the coagulation threshold power coefficient 0.7 1/cm in18 makes its observa- free-running pulsed Nd:YAG lasers.
density Ec = t Ic and coagulation depth H = tions highly relevant to present analysis with
xc – xa ≈ xc (for 60-100ºC temperature range absorption coefficient of approximately 0.4 1/ Summary and conclusions
inside the heat affected zone in Figure 6, i.e. cm at 810 nm (see Figure 4). Ablation threshold intensity and coagu-
Ta = 100ºC and Tc = 60ºC) is calculated from: For H ≥ B (CO2 laser wavelengths in lation depth spectra are derived from the
Figure 9), coagulation extends just deep absorption spectra of oral soft tissue’ main
ϱ C ( Tc - Tb ) = Ec / A = t I0 Exp [-xc/A] / A enough into a severed blood vessel to stop chromophores (water, melanin, hemoglobin,
= ETH Exp [-H/A] / A (5) the bleeding; the coagulation is more effi- and oxyhemoglobin) for conditions most
cient then for the above two cases H<<B, suited for high efficiency photo-thermal
where body temperature Tb is 37ºC. For and H>>B. ablation (pulse duration t ≤ TR) with minimum
longer laser pulses closer to Thermal Relax- collateral damage to the surrounding tissue
ation Time (t ≈ TR), the thermal diffusion Near-IR diode and Nd:YAG laser (pulse repetition rate f << 1/TR). The non-
spreads the heat over an additional distance soft tissue ablation and coagulation laser wavelength-independent thermal inter-
A, which accordingly increases the coagula- Near-IR diode laser light circa 1,000 nm action between the soft tissue and diode’s
tion depth from (5). is not used to optically ablate the oral soft charred hot glass tip was excluded from the
The coagulation depth value H relative tissue; instead, the diode laser optical energy scope of present analysis.
to the blood vessel diameter B is an impor- is used to heat up the charred distal end Near-IR 800-1,100 nm diode wave-
tant measure of coagulation and hemostasis of the fiber glass tip to 500-900ºC,28 which lengths are shown to be highly energy

5 Implant practice Volume 7 Number 6

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Stage II IMPLANT UNCOVERING with LightScalpel angled tipless handpiece

1. Healed implant site ready for uncovering 2. Tissue ablation begins in the center 3. Implant uncovered
above the implant and continues in a circular after ablation
spiraling motion

Photographs courtesy of Grant Selig, DDS, Las Vegas, Nevada

Incision/excision/ablation with focused laser beam Coagulation with defocused laser beam

Coagulation depth of Nozzle-to-tissue distance

Nozzle-to-tissue distance 1-3 mm
the margins < 100 µm 6-9 mm maintains 500-800
maintains 250 µm focal spot
on the tissue µm focal spot on the tissue Coagulation depth is 100-300 µm,
Width of incision < 250 µm depending on exposure time
Depth of incision is proportional
to irradiance [Joules/cm2]