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What Is Arthroscopy?

What You Need to Know

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Updated February 27, 2013

When conservative treatments for osteoarthritis or other types of arthritis fail to satisfactorily relieve pain and restore function to the affected joint, it may be time to consider joint surgery. But what surgery? What surgical procedure is right for you?

It's best to learn about the various types of joint surgery and understand your options. When most patients think of joint surgery, they think of total joint replacement. But there are other procedures you should know about, including osteotomy, hip resurfacing, arthrodesis (fusion), minimally-invasive replacement for the hip and knee, unicompartmental knee surgery, and, of course, arthroscopy. Here, we will concentrate on arthroscopy.

What Is Arthroscopy?

Arthroscopy is best explained by looking at the etymology of the word. Arthroscopy comes from two Greek words -- arthro (joint) and skopein (to look). Arthroscopy literally means to look within a joint.

The procedure is quite common, but also quite amazing. The orthopedic surgeon inserts an arthroscope through one of three small incisions made in the patient's skin. The arthroscope contains a small lens and lighting system to allow illumination and magnification of structures inside the joint. The arthroscope can be attached to a television so the images are larger and more clearly visible. With arthroscopy, the surgeon detects injury or damage and can then decide if surgical repair is possible through the other accessory incisions that were made to accommodate other surgical instruments.

Who Is a Candidate for Arthroscopy?

Medical history, physical examination, and x-rays are used to diagnose various types of arthritis. Sometimes that isn't enough, and diagnosis is still inconclusive. By actually looking into the affected joint, the orthopedic surgeon can diagnose or detect:

As previously said, arthroscopic surgery is not just diagnostic. In some cases, it can serve as surgery to repair the problem that was detected.

The Benefits of Arthroscopy

There is an obvious benefit over "open surgery" -- recovery is quicker and smoother with arthroscopic surgery. Patients typically have arthroscopic surgery on an outpatient basis and can be back home several hours after the procedure has been completed.

Consider your goals when deciding if arthroscopic surgery is right for you.

Pros:

  • can relieve pain
  • used to diagnose and treat

Cons:

Arthroscopy is most commonly used on 6 joints: knee, shoulder, elbow, ankle, hip, and wrist. As techniques improve, more joints may be treated this way.

Recovering from Arthroscopy

Within a few days, many patients can go back to work or school and resume normal daily activities. But, ultimately the outcome is individual and depends on the patient's condition and overall health.

The small wounds usually heal in a few days. Dressing placed during the operation can be changed to adhesive strips the morning after surgery. Though the wounds are small and pain is minimal after arthroscopic surgery, it takes several weeks for the joint to fully recover.

Sources:

What Is Arthroscopy? American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. October 2007.
http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00109

About Arthroscopic Surgery. Arthritis Foundation. 2001.

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