The term arthroscopy means “to look within the joint.” Arthroscopy (or arthroscopic surgery) is not a surgical procedure in itself, but rather a method of performing surgery. Compared with traditional open surgery, arthroscopy is less invasive and uses smaller incisions and tools, including a narrow, flexible tube called an arthroscope. The arthroscope is attached to a fiberoptic video monitor, allowing the surgeon to visualize the joint without making a large incision.
In the past arthroscopy was used for diagnostic purposes, but now it can be used to treat conditions and repair some types of joint damage.
There are many joint conditions that can be treated using arthroscopic surgery. Some common arthroscopic procedures include:
However, it is important to be aware that not every surgery can be done arthroscopically. The decision to perform arthroscopy versus open surgery is made on a case-by-case basis and depends on patient history, physical examination and the results of other imaging studies such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In addition, sometimes the surgeon may need to convert an arthroscopy to an open surgery, or plan for an open surgery at a later date.
The patient is given a general, local or spinal anesthetic. The surgeon makes a small incision–about the size of a buttonhole–and inserts the arthroscope, and also makes additional small incisions to accommodate other tools.
The surgeon can see into the joint or operating area using the video monitor attached to the arthroscope. The procedure is performed using small tools inserted through the other incisions. Afterward, the arthroscope and tools are removed, and the incisions are covered and possibly sutured.
Arthroscopic surgery is generally minimally invasive. Because smaller incisions are used, arthroscopic surgery offers a shorter, less painful recovery and less noticeable scarring compared with traditional open surgery. Other potential benefits of arthroscopy include the lower risk of infection and the fact that it is usually performed in an outpatient setting.
Arthroscopy is less invasive than traditional open surgery, but it does require some type of sedation. The patient’s medical history must be carefully reviewed to minimize the risks of anesthesia. In addition, the patient is at risk for complications including infection, excessive swelling or bleeding, blood clots of a vein (phlebitis), damage to blood vessels or nerves and instrument breakage during arthroscopy. However, these complications are extremely uncommon and occur in less than 1 percent of all arthroscopic procedures.
Most procedures performed arthroscopically are done on an outpatient basis, and the patient can leave the hospital or surgery center within 24 hours after the operation. Because the incisions used in arthroscopy are so small, there is much less trauma or damage to the tissue around the operating area. This means that recovery is generally faster and less painful compared with open surgery. Pain medications may be prescribed but are not always necessary.
Recovery time may be several weeks or longer and depends on the health of the patient, the procedure being performed and the condition to be corrected. The patient may be able to return to work or school in a few days and resume athletic activities in a few weeks. The surgeon will give instructions on activity restrictions or rehabilitation programs to help recovery and prevent further injury.
At University Orthopaedic Associates, our surgeons have decades of combined experience performing both open and arthroscopic procedures. If you think you may need surgery for a joint condition, request an appointment to discuss your diagnosis and treatment options.