What to Know Before Undergoing Arthroscopy

Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgical procedure used to diagnose various problems within a joint or to repair damage to any part of the joint. The physician inserts the arthroscope, a small tube containing optical fibers and lenses, through small incisions — each about the size of a buttonhole — into the joint to be examined. The arthroscope connects to a video monitor, which displays images of the joint’s interior to the surgeon. If he needs to repair any damage, he inserts pencil-thin surgical instruments through another small incision.

Arthroscopy became a viable alternative to open surgery in the 1960s, when fiberoptic technologies allowed for the miniaturization of visualizing equipment. It’s now used routinely throughout the world. 

At Town Center Orthopaedic Associates PC, with locations in Reston and Centreville, Virginia, our expert team of orthopaedic surgeons and sports medicine specialists routinely uses arthroscopy for both the diagnosis and treatment of joint conditions. But while the procedure is commonplace for us, it probably isn’t for you, so we’ve put together this guide on what you can expect during all phases of an arthroscopic procedure.

The necessity of arthroscopy

Even after a thorough medical history, a physical exam, X-rays, and possibly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans, you may need arthroscopy to get a definitive diagnosis of a joint problem.

Arthroscopic examinations can detect disease and injuries to bones, cartilage, muscles, ligaments, and tendons in and around a joint. Some of the most frequent conditions found include:

What’s the procedure like?

Your exact pre-procedure preparations will depend on which joint the surgeon is treating. In general, however, you should:

Arthroscopy is performed as an outpatient procedure, meaning you go home the same day. For the procedure itself, you’ll have one of three types of anesthesia:

  1. Local: Numbing agents block sensation in a limited area; you'll be awake, but all you’ll feel is pressure
  2. Regional: Delivered through a small needle between two of your spine's lumbar vertebrae; numbs the bottom half of your body
  3. General: Delivered through a vein (intravenously); you’ll be unconscious

The surgical team will place the limb being worked on in a positioning device. They may also use a tourniquet to decrease blood loss and enhance visibility within the joint. Some doctors fill your joint with a sterile fluid, expanding the area around the joint, and improving visibility.

The surgeon makes one small incision for the arthroscope, and additional small incisions around the joint for inserting surgical tools to grasp, cut, and provide suction as needed for joint repair. The incisions are small enough to close with one or two stitches or with narrow strips of sterile adhesive tape.

The whole procedure usually takes only an hour or so. Then, you’ll spend some time in recovery to make sure that everything went well and that you’re fully awake before you go home.

The recovery process

We cover the incisions with a surgical dressing, which usually can be removed the next morning. The incisions themselves will take several days to heal. But though the incisions are small and your pain should be minimal, it may take your joint several weeks to recover fully.

Your doctor will give you specific after-care instructions, which may include:

You’ll probably be given the go-ahead to return to your daily activities within a few days.

If you’re having problems in any of your joints, especially your knees, elbows, wrists, spine, or ankles, your doctor may want to perform an arthroscopic procedure to investigate and possibly repair any damage. To learn more about the procedure or to schedule a consultation, call us at 703-213-5316 for either location, or schedule your appointment online.

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