Holmium:YAG laser lithotripsy: A dominant photothermal ablative mechanism with chemical decomposition of urinary calculi

Kin Foong Chan, George J. Vassar, T. Joshua Pfefer, Joel M H Teichman, Randolph D. Glickman, Susan T. Weintraub, Ashley J. Welch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

181 Scopus citations


Background and Objective: Evidence is presented that the fragmentation process of long-pulse Holmium:YAG (Ho:YAG) lithotripsy is governed by photothermal decomposition of the calculi rather than photomechanical or photoacoustical mechanisms as is widely thought. The clinical Ho:YAG laser lithotriptor (2.12 μm, 250 μs) operates in the free-running mode, producing pulse durations much longer than the time required for a sound wave to propagate beyond the optical penetration depth of this wave-length in water. Hence, it is unlikely that shock waves are produced during bubble formation. In addition, the vapor bubble induced by this laser is not spherical. Thus the magnitude of the pressure wave produced at cavitation collapse does not contribute significantly to lithotripsy. Study Design/Materials and Methods: A fast-flash photography setup was used to capture the dynamics of urinary calculus fragmentation at various delay times following the onset of the Ho:YAG laser pulse. These images were concurrently correlated with pressure measurements obtained with a piezoelectric polyvinylidene-fluoride needle- hydrophone. Stone mass-loss measurements for ablation of urinary calculi (1) in air (dehydrated and hydrated) and in water, and (2) at pre-cooled and at room temperatures were compared. Chemical and composition analyses were performed on the ablation products of several types of Ho:YAG laser irradiated urinary calculi, including calcium oxalate monohydrate (COM), calcium hydrogen phosphate dihydrate (CHPD), magnesium ammonium phosphate hexahydrate (MAPH), cystine, and uric acid calculi. Results: When the optical fiber was placed perpendicularly in contact with the surface of the target, fast-flash photography provided visual evidence that ablation occurred approximately 50 μs after the initiation of the Ho:YAG laser pulse (250-350 μs duration; 375-400 mJ per pulse), long before the collapse of the cavitation bubble. The measured peak acoustical pressure upon cavitation collapse was negligible (< 2 bars), indicating that photomechanical forces were not responsible for the observed fragmentation process. When the fiber was placed in parallel to the calculus surface, the pressure peaks occurring at the collapse of the cavitation were on the order of 20 bars, but no fragmentation occurred. Regardless of fiber orientation, no shock waves were recorded at the beginning of bubble formation. Ablation of COM calculi (a total of 150 J; 0.5 J per pulse at an 8-Hz repetition rate) revealed different Ho:YAG efficiencies for dehydrated calculus, hydrated calculus, and submerged calculus. COM and cystine calculi, pre-cooled at -80°C and then placed in water, yielded lower mass-loss during ablation (20 J, 1.0 J per pulse) compared to the mass-loss of calculi at room temperature. Chemical analyses of the ablated calculi revealed products resulting from thermal decomposition. Calcium carbonate was found in samples composed of COM calculi; calcium pyrophosphate was found in CHPD samples; free sulfur and cysteine were discovered in samples composed of cysteine samples; and cyanide was found in samples of uric acid calculi. Conclusion: These experimental results provide convincing evidence that long-pulse Ho:YAG laser lithotripsy causes chemical decomposition of urinary calculi as a consequence of a dominant photothermal mechanism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)22-37
Number of pages16
JournalLasers in Surgery and Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1999


  • Fast-flash photography
  • Kidney stones
  • Laser lithotripsy
  • Long-pulse Ho:YAG
  • Mass-loss
  • Photoacoustical pressure waves
  • Photothermal mechanism
  • Thermal breakdown

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Dermatology
  • Surgery


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