May 01, 2012
2 min read

What is arthroscopy?

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Arthroscopy is an orthopedic procedure that is used to diagnose and treat joint or soft tissue problems by placing a small instrument, called an arthroscope, through a small incision into the joint. Once used exclusively as a preparation method for surgery, it is now an alternative to more invasive surgical procedures and is preferable in some cases due to a shorter recovery time.

An orthopedic surgeon who performs an arthroscopy will use an arthroscope equipped with a video camera and light that illuminates the inside of the joint, eliminating the need for a larger surgical incision. From there, additional surgical incisions may be made to insert other instruments or arthroscopes to examine other angles of the joint. Once inside the joint, the surgeon can see any floating debris or torn tissue that may be causing problems such as inflammation and wear. Depending on the extent of the problem found, the orthopedic surgeon may be able to correct the damage.

Arthroscopic procedures are usually performed in ankle, knee, wrist, shoulder, hip and elbow joints, although in other areas, like the spine, arthroscopy is useful because there is less risk of damage to the surrounding tissue. Arthroscopic procedures can be used to treat rotator cuff tears, tendinitis or dislocations of the shoulder; cartilage or ACL tears of the knee; and carpal tunnel syndrome of the wrist, among others. Although the procedure is minimally invasive, patients still require some form of anesthesia and a proper surgical environment as well as a full clinical examination prior to an arthroscopy. Many patients are able to have arthroscopies performed in outpatient centers and can recover within days of the surgery.

Surgical examinations through arthroscopy are often compared with MRI or CT scans to determine exactly what problem is affecting the joint or tissue. An orthopedic surgeon may decide to perform a more invasive procedure on a patient while they are under anesthesia if an arthroscopic repair is not sufficient or may decide to wait until the patient awakens from the anesthesia to discuss the results.

In the recovery period after surgery, there can be swelling and stiffness in the affected joint for 1 to 2 weeks. The orthopedic surgeon often advises the patient to avoid strenuous tasks during this time until the swelling lessens because of the risk of damage to the unstable joint.

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