Elbow Arthroscopy: A Guide for What to Expect, Procedure, and Recovery

Elbow pain is a prevalent condition that can affect people of all ages. In fact, studies suggest that approximately 3% of the general population experience elbow pain at some point in their life. However, this phenomenon commonly occurs in aging seniors, workers who use their arms repetitively, and athletes.  

Moreover, elbow pain is a common symptom that can point to a broad set of elbow injuries and conditions. Some symptoms may come from a simple ligament strain or inflamed tendon, while others may already be a telltale sign of a chronic elbow condition. 

A great and innovative technique to know the reason behind your elbow pain is through an elbow arthroscopy. If you are currently scheduled for such a procedure, then you don’t have anything to worry about. 

Here’s an in-depth guide on everything you need to know about elbow arthroscopy.

What is elbow arthroscopy?

Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive procedure used to visualize the inside of the joint to diagnose and treat an associated problem. It can be performed to see the internal issues of any joint, such as the shoulder, knee, ankle, or elbow.

During elbow arthroscopy, your surgeon will insert a narrow, flexible tube with an attached fiber optic video camera at the end (called an arthroscope) into the elbow joint. This device will transmit a real-time, high-definition video onto a monitor so your doctor can view the joint in great detail. 

Besides diagnostic accuracy, elbow arthroscopy also offers several advantages compared to traditional open surgery. This includes the following:

  • Smaller incisions
  • Less pain, swelling, and other post-operative symptoms.
  • Reduced risk of infection rate and other surgical complications.
  • Faster healing and recovery time
  • Shorter surgery time
  • Low possibility of permanent surgical scars.

Additionally, elbow arthroscopy is a minor procedure that’s often performed in an outpatient setting. This means you don’t have to stay overnight in the surgical facility; your doctor may discharge you once the anesthesia wears off. 

When is elbow arthroscopy necessary?

Doctors often treat elbow injuries and conditions using non-surgical methods, such as RICE therapy, physiotherapy, and medications. However, if the condition does not improve and worsens over time, your doctor will recommend elbow arthroscopy. 

An elbow arthroscopy allows an orthopedic surgeon to diagnose and treat elbow problems causing pain and inflammation. This includes the following elbow injuries and conditions:

  • Lateral and medial epicondylitis
  • Olecranon bursitis
  • Stress fracture
  • Elbow fracture
  • Osteoarthritis 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Osteochondritis dissecans
  • Nerve entrapment

Additionally, the above-mentioned conditions may also cause impaired elbow flexibility, range of motion, and overall arm mobility. Performing an elbow arthroscopy can help reduce these symptoms and restore optimal arm function.

Additionally, it can also be used to remove bone spurs or loose bodies inside the joints and release scar tissues for improved mobility.

How is elbow arthroscopy performed?

An elbow arthroscopy is often performed with the help of general anesthesia, meaning you’ll be asleep and won’t feel anything during the whole operation. You will then be positioned in a way that your surgeon will get the best access to your elbow, which is either lying on your stomach or side.

  • The procedure starts by making 2-3 buttonhole-sized incisions in the elbow joint. These will serve as portals of entry for the arthroscope and other specialized instruments.
  • Your surgeon will fill the joint with sterile fluid for better viewing and to lessen the risk of injuring delicate structures, such as the nerves and blood vessels. 
  • Once inside, your surgeon will evaluate the problem and then start carrying out specific tasks, such as removing the damaged cartilage, repairing muscle tears, or removing loose fragments.
  • Once done, your surgeon will suture the incision and cover it with skin tapes or sterile bandages. They may also place your elbow in a splint to keep it immobile for a few days. 

After surgery, you will be placed in a recovery area where a medical team will monitor your vital signs. You’ll wait at least an hour or two before the anesthesia wears off, and you can be discharged to go home.

Frequently asked questions about elbow arthroscopy

How long does elbow arthroscopic surgery take?

Surgery usually lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how complex the surgery is or the severity of the condition.  

What to expect after an elbow arthroscopy?

Expect a tolerable level of pain and discomfort right after your elbow arthroscopy. There’s nothing to worry about since your doctor will prescribe a set of medications to reduce pain and swelling as you recover at home. Your physician will also provide post-surgical instructions that you need to follow, such as the following:

  • Apply a cold compress to the newly operated elbow joint and keep it elevated for the first 48 hours.
  • Wear your splint, brace, or sling as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Undergo physical therapy immediately to stimulate blood circulation in the area, thus reducing inflammation and augmenting recovery.
  • Perform gentle finger exercises or range of motion activities at home. 
  • No weight bearing or heavy lifting using your newly operated elbow unless cleared by your doctor.
  • Follow the post-operative incision and dressing care for your surgical wound.
  • Attend regular check-ups with your orthopedic specialist.

When can I return to work after elbow arthroscopy?

The length of recovery varies from person to person. Most patients are cleared to return to their regular routine after a week or two. However, expect to still feel some level of discomfort, bruising, and swelling in the elbow. Full recovery can take several months.

It’s important to talk to your physician about the specific activities you may or may not do to prevent injuring the elbow joint.  

What are the risks of elbow arthroscopy?

Elbow arthroscopy is a safe and effective procedure for treating common elbow conditions. But like any other invasive operation, it does come with some risks, such as:

  • Infection
  • Blood clot
  • Bleeding problems
  • Damage to nearby tissues, nerves, and blood vessels due to the small area.
  • Nerve irritation

However, these complications happen rarely, especially if you are in the hands of the board-certified surgeons of the Orthopaedic Surgery Center of Panther Creek.

UNC Orthopedics and Panther Creek

Experience high-quality treatment and patient care at UNC Orthopedics and Panther Creek

The Orthopaedic Surgery Center of Panther Creek is one of the best and most trusted outpatient orthopedic clinics in North Carolina. We have a team of fellowship-trained surgeons on board committed to providing the highest quality of medical care and treatment. We can help treat your orthopedic problems to achieve maximum independence and normal function.  

Contact us now to learn more about our services!

The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.

outpatient orthopedic surgery cary
6715 McCrimmon Parkway
Suite 205 A 
Cary, NC 27519
Monday – Friday: 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
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