Arthroscopic surgery, or arthroscopy, is a way for an orthopaedic surgeon to see inside a joint. In the past, surgeons mainly used arthroscopy to diagnose problems. But now, they also use it treat ligament tears and other joint injuries.
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What Is Arthroscopic Surgery?
Arthroscopic surgery is less invasive than traditional, or open, surgery. An arthroscopic incision is just about the size of a buttonhole. By contrast, open surgery requires a larger incision.
Before your arthroscopic procedure, you’ll get a general or a local anesthetic to make sure you don’t feel any pain.
After the surgeon makes the tiny incision, they’ll insert an equally tiny instrument called an arthroscope. This is a very small tube with a camera and a light. Think of it like a miniature television camera that records what’s happening and projects it onto a monitor.
The surgeon looks at the pictures and can magnify and focus on ligaments, tendons, and cartilage.
If your arthroscopic procedure is just diagnostic, such as to look at scar tissue or joint damage, your surgeon will assess the problem. If it’s a repair, the surgeon can use that same small incision to insert tiny surgical instruments.
A surgeon can use an arthroscope to look inside any joint. But according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the six joints they most often use an arthroscope for are:
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When Do Surgeons Use Arthroscopy?
Patients prefer arthroscopy because:
- It’s usually an outpatient procedure
- Most patients need little or no pain medicine afterward
- The incisions are small and heal quickly
- The recovery from arthroscopy is quicker than from traditional surgery
Some common procedures that surgeons use arthroscopic techniques for include:
- Repairing a torn rotator cuff (sometimes combined with traditional surgery)
- Repairing a meniscus tear in the knee
- Repairing torn ligaments in other places, such as the elbow or ankle
- Reconstructing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee
- Removing pieces of bone or cartilage in knees, shoulders, and other joints
- Removing ganglion cysts (noncancerous lumps) on the wrist
- Reducing the pressure on the carpal tunnel nerve in the wrist
- Removing the inflamed lining (synovium) in a knee, shoulder, elbow, wrist, or ankle
Recovering From Arthroscopic Surgery
Arthroscopic surgery is usually an outpatient procedure. With arthroscopy, there’s a good chance you’ll be back home a few hours after surgery.
Your surgeon will put a dressing on your incision (which may or may not have stitches). Before you leave, you will get some instructions on how to keep the incision clean and change dressings. If you care for the incision as you are instructed, it should heal fairly quickly.
Depending on what procedure you had, it can take weeks or months for the joint to recover. If your surgeon simply removed some damaged cartilage or a small bone fragment, you might be back to normal within a week. But if you had arthroscopic surgery to repair a rotator cuff or meniscus, you’re looking at a much longer recovery.
Your surgeon will work with you to create a complete rehabilitation program. This may include working with a physical therapist regularly or doing physical therapy exercises on your own.
If you’re an athlete, it can be daunting to face weeks of rehab. But plenty of athletes and active people come back even stronger after arthroscopic procedures.
Also, arthroscopy comes with only minimal risks. Complications such as blood clots, swelling, or bleeding are rare. In fact, the AAOS reports that complications happen in less than 1% of all arthroscopic procedures.
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About UPMC Orthopaedic Care
As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, UPMC treats a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. Whether you have bone, muscle, or joint pain, we provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. As leaders in research and clinical trials with cutting-edge tools and techniques, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside appears on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the top hospitals in the country for orthopaedics.