Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgical technique performed to visualize, evaluate, and treat joint problems and injuries. During an arthroscopic procedure, your orthopedic surgeon will make a small incision over the affected joint and insert a thin tube with a fiber optic camera on the end. The camera transmits a video feed to a connected high-definition TV monitor, allowing your surgeon to see the inside of your joint.
From there, your surgeon is able to identify and assess joint injuries or conditions. Depending on the injury, your surgeon may be able to repair the damage immediately using very thin surgical instruments and lights.
Arthroscopy can be performed on any joint, but it’s commonly used to evaluate and treat the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee and ankle joints. It’s a very safe medical procedure and often performed on an outpatient basis. Following surgery, many people are able to resume work, school, and their normal activities within a few weeks.
Keep reading to learn about common conditions that can be treated with arthroscopy.
When Is Arthroscopy Performed?
Arthroscopy is used as a diagnostic tool to help surgeons visualize and assess joint problems. Arthroscopic procedures are also used to repair some types of joint, cartilage and soft tissue injuries. Your doctor may recommend an arthroscopic procedure for the following conditions.
- Meniscus tears. The meniscus is a tough, rubbery cartilage disc that functions as a shock absorber in the knee. Each knee has two menisci. The cartilage can tear from a forceful twisting movement — a torn meniscus is a common sports and exercise-related injury. Depending on the severity of the tear, your doctor may use an arthroscopic procedure to repair the tear or trim jagged edges to reduce pain.
- Ligament tears. Arthroscopy is commonly performed to repair and reconstruct a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee joint. The ACL is one of four ligaments that stabilize and support the knee. An ACL tear is a common sports-related injury that occurs after a sudden pivot or change in direction. During arthroscopic repair, a tendon graft is taken from elsewhere in the body and used to reconstruct the torn ligament. Arthroscopy can also be performed to repair other ligament tears in the knee joint.
- Rotator cuff tears. The rotator cuff is the group of strong tendons that support and stabilize the shoulder joint. The most common cause of a rotator cuff tear is overuse from repetitive lifting motions. Athletes like tennis players, baseball players, and rowers, as well as people with occupations like construction and painting, are at high risk for developing tendon tears in the shoulder. Arthroscopic surgery is performed to reattach the torn tendon to bone.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a wrist injury that occurs when the median nerve — which controls hand movements — is irritated or compressed. Activities that require repetitive flexing of the wrist, a wrist fracture or dislocation, inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, body fluid changes (especially during pregnancy), and obesity can all contribute to changes that damage or compress the median nerve. During arthroscopic carpal tunnel release, a ligament in the wrist is cut to create more space and relieve pressure on the nerve.
- Labral tears. The labrum is a rough, rubbery, cup-shaped piece of cartilage that supports ball-and-socket joints like the hip and shoulder. Repetitive motions that cause wear and tear on the cartilage can eventually lead to a partial or complete labral tear. A traumatic injury like a hip or shoulder dislocation can also cause labral tears. An arthroscopic procedure may be performed to repair or reconstruct a torn labrum.
- Nerve impingement. Nerve impingement is a common shoulder injury. It develops when the rotator cuff tendons repeatedly rub or “pinch” against the underside of the shoulder blade. It’s frequently caused by repetitive overhead motions — shoulder impingement is common among athletes including swimmers, volleyball, and baseball players. A bone spur in the joint can also lead to impingement. During an arthroscopic procedure, part of the shoulder blade is removed to create more space for the rotator cuff to move freely.
- Chondromalacia. Chondromalacia is a cartilage injury that affects the underside of the kneecap. It’s frequently caused by overuse of the knee joint, leading to the cartilage under the kneecap wearing down and softening. Weak muscles or biomechanical issues (like flat feet) can also place added stress on the knee joint that leads to cartilage damage. An arthroscopic repair can smooth rough cartilage edges, replace damaged cartilage with a cartilage graft, or release ligaments to create more space for movement.
- Joint lining inflammation. Synovitis is a condition that describes inflammation of the joint lining. Among active, healthy adults, synovitis is commonly caused by overuse of a joint. Having an inflammatory condition like rheumatoid arthritis is another common cause of synovitis. During an arthroscopic surgery, inflamed tissues are removed to relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness.
- Loose bodies. An arthroscopic procedure may be performed to remove loose pieces of bone or cartilage that are causing joint pain.
- Bone spurs. An arthroscopic procedure may be performed to remove bone spurs that develop around joints.
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