What is elbow arthroscopy?

Elbow arthroscopy is minimally invasive surgery that diagnoses or treats many elbow problems. Common problems infections, injuries, arthritis, include inflammatory conditions, and unexplained symptoms. Your doctor uses an arthroscope with a tiny camera to view the inside of the elbow joint. Special instruments allow your doctor to treat joint problems through small incisions. This relieves symptoms and restores elbow function.  

Elbow arthroscopy is a common surgery, but it has risks and potential complications. You may have less invasive treatment options. Consider getting a second opinion about all of your treatment choices before having elbow arthroscopy. 

Other procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may also perform a biopsy during elbow arthroscopy. A biopsy involves removing a cell or tissue sample and testing it for cancer and other diseases. 

You may need open surgery, or elbow arthrotomy, for an elbow condition that your doctor cannot treat with arthroscopy. Open surgery involves a larger incision that allows your doctor to directly view and treat the elbow.

Why is elbow arthroscopy performed? 

Your doctor may recommend elbow arthroscopy to diagnose elbow symptoms when a cause is not clear. Elbow arthroscopy can also treat elbow conditions when symptoms have not responded to other treatments. Elbow arthroscopy is not the first choice to treat elbow conditions. Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion.

Your doctor may recommend elbow arthroscopy to diagnose or treat: 

  • Elbow joint infections, also called septic arthritis
  • Elbow joint injuries, including fractures, dislocations, torn cartilage, tennis elbow, and overuse injuries
  • Inflammatory conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, synovitis, and tendinitis
  • Loose bodies, including bone fragments and cartilage pieces
  • Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, which is the breakdown of cartilage and bones
  • Osteochondritis dissecans, which is an activity-related condition often affecting gymnasts and pitchers
  • Unexplained elbow symptoms, including pain, swelling, stiffness, instability, locking, catching and grinding

Who performs elbow arthroscopy?

Orthopedic surgeons and hand surgeons perform elbow arthroscopy. Orthopedic surgeons are specially trained to treat problems of the bones and joints. They perform surgery and prescribe other treatments. Hand surgeons are orthopedic or plastic surgeons who further specialize in surgery of the hand, wrist, forearm and elbow.

How is elbow arthroscopy performed?

Your elbow arthroscopy will be performed in a hospital or outpatient surgery setting. It is a minimally invasive surgery that involves making at least two small incisions in the elbow. Your surgeon will insert an arthroscope and special instruments through the incisions. A tiny camera on the arthroscope allows your surgeon to view the inside of your elbow on a video screen. Your surgeon will examine and repair joint damage as needed. 

Types of anesthesia 

You will mostly likely have general anesthesia for elbow arthroscopy. Surgeons tend to avoid using regional anesthesia because it interferes with nerve examinations after surgery.

  • General anesthesia is a combination of intravenous (IV) medications and gases that put you in a deep sleep. You are unaware of the surgery and do not feel any pain. 
  • Regional anesthesia is also known as a nerve block. It involves injecting an anesthetic around certain nerves to numb a large area of the body. You will likely have sedation with regional anesthesia to keep you relaxed and comfortable. 

What to expect the day of your elbow arthroscopy

The day of your surgery, you can expect to:

  • Talk with a preoperative nurse. The nurse will perform an exam and ensure that all needed tests are in order. The nurse can also answer questions and will make sure you understand and sign the surgical consent form.
  • Remove all clothing and jewelry and dress in a hospital gown. It is a good idea to leave all jewelry and valuables at home or with a family member. The surgical team will give you blankets for modesty and warmth.
  • Talk with the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist about your medical history and the type of anesthesia you will have.
  • A surgical team member will start an IV.
  • The anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist will start your anesthesia.
  • A tube may be placed in your windpipe to protect and control breathing during general anesthesia. You will not feel or remember this or the surgery as they happen.
  • The surgical team will monitor your vital signs and other critical body functions. This occurs throughout the surgery and during your recovery until you are alert, breathing effectively, and your vital signs are stable.