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What is elbow arthroscopy?

Elbow arthroscopy, also referred to as "scoping the elbow," is a minimally invasive procedure used by orthopedic surgeons to treat various painful conditions of the elbow such as arthritis, tennis elbow and thrower’s elbow. An arthroscope is a small tube consisting of a system of lenses, a light and a small video camera that is inserted into the joint through a small incision. Surgical tools are inserted through other small incisions to repair and/or remove damaged structures and harmful debris such as loose cartilage and bone fragments.

Why it's done

Several painful elbow conditions can be effectively treated with elbow arthroscopy:

  • Tennis elbow—Tennis elbow is a painful condition that occurs when there is microscopic tearing of the tendons on the outside of the elbow joint. As the name suggests, tennis elbow has long been associated with racquet sports and other physical activities that overuse the arms. In our computer age, tennis elbow is now happening more frequently to people who have never played these sports.
  • Arthritis—Your elbow joint can collect loose debris or cartilage as a result of arthritis or an injury, resulting in pain and a limited range of motion in your elbow.
  • Bone spurs—Bone spurs (little hooks of bone) may develop around the joint in the early stages of elbow arthritis or as a result of cumulative trauma from sports. They impede the normal motion of the joint. Arthroscopy is an effective procedure for removing these invasive structures and restoring more normal motion to the joint.
  • Elbow arthrofibrosis—When your elbow experiences an injury, surgery or another kind of trauma,  inflammation develops and the joint can stiffen. Scar tissue can be released to improve range of motion. The minimally invasive aspect of arthroscopy has the added benefit of creating less scar tissue than an open surgery approach, as well as improving the chances of regaining lost elbow motion.
  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD)—An activity-related condition in which cracks form in the articular cartilage and the underlying subchondral bone, usually in the capitellum. This is often seen in young pitchers and gymnasts. The loose fragments are removed and the site is debrided or repaired.

What to expect

During elbow arthroscopy: 

  • A general anesthetic is administered.
  • The arthroscope is inserted through a small incision about the elbow. Care is taken to avoid surrounding neurovascular structures. Light is transmitted via fiber optics at the end of the arthroscope.
  • Images from the camera of the scope are transmitted to a television monitor.
  • Other portal incisions are established to introduce working instruments such as graspers and motorized shavers.

Recovery

Recovery time depends on the extent of the surgery and on the individual patient. However, most elbow arthroscopy is done on an outpatient basis, and patients are usually allowed to go home within one to two hours after the procedure. It is usually recommended that you ice and elevate your elbow for the two days following the surgery.  An exercise program under the supervision of a physical therapist is often prescribed to help restore elbow motion and strength.

Some patients resume daily activities and return to work or school within a few days. Athletes and other patients in good physical condition may return to athletic activities within six weeks, under the care of their physician.

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