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St. Mary's Center for Orthopaedics

Elbow Arthroscopy

What is Elbow Arthroscopy?

Elbow arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgical technique used to evaluate and treat a variety of conditions affecting the elbow. This technique involves several small incisions. Fluid is pumped into the elbow to distend space within the elbow joint. A small camera (known as an arthroscope) is inserted into the elbow via one of the incisions. Small instruments, such as a probe, scissors, or shavers, are inserted into the other incision(s) to perform the surgery. In contrast to traditional surgery, using large incisions to open the joint, there is no injury to surrounding soft tissues with arthroscopy. In addition, the arthroscopic technique enables the surgeon to view the elbow joint from multiple angles, allowing for a more thorough evaluation.

Prior to scheduling the arthroscopic procedure, the surgeon will obtain an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and X-rays of the joint. The MRI provides information about the soft tissues surrounding the bones (cartilage, tendons and ligaments).  The X-rays provide information about the bones, which may have irregularities including spurs (extra growths that can cause pain and inflammation). Placement of the incisions may also be guided by these findings.

Elbow arthroscopy is performed under regional or general anesthesia and hospitalization is not required. Surgery typically takes 60-90 minutes to complete depending upon the amount of damage within the elbow and the nature of the procedure that is being performed.

What Conditions can be Treated by an Elbow Arthroscopy?

Common uses of elbow arthroscopy include:

  • Diagnostic purposes for pain, stiffness or loss of motion in the joint
  • Remove loose bodies – fragments of bone or cartilage that break loose causing pain or catching and locking the joint
  • Treat lesions involving the articular cartilage
  • Break up scar tissue or adhesions which cause pain and limited elbow range of motion
  • Contractures – muscle and tendons are abnormally contracted, limiting range of motion
  • Arthritis – wearing away of cartilage necessary to ensure the bones glide smoothly against each other during movement
  • Diagnostic purposes in patients who fail to respond to non-surgical treatments

What Complications are Associated with Elbow Arthroscopy?

As with any surgery, there are risks associated with elbow arthroscopy. Some potential complications are due to the constraints of working in the elbow, a very tight space in which the nerves pass closely over the joint.  Complications may include:

  • Damage to a blood vessel
  • Damage to nerves (injury can result in temporary numbness)
  • Infection
  • Inadvertent damage to the cartilage surfaces of the elbow
  • Complications associated with anesthesia

Warning signs that suggest a potential complication is occurring include the presence of fevers greater than 101.5°, persistent warmth or redness around the elbow, increasing or uncontrollable pain, or significant swelling in the elbow.