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What is arthroscopic surgery?


Updated July 15, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

knee arthroscopy surgery arthroscopic

Performing arthroscopic knee surgery.

Photo © Piotr Wzietek

Using small instruments and a camera, your surgeon can look inside joints.

John Kelly / Getty Images

Arthroscopic surgery is a common orthopedic procedure that is used to diagnose and treat problems in joints. The word "arthroscopy" comes from two Greek words: 'arthro,' meaning "joint," and 'scope,' meaning "look." Simply put, arthroscopic surgery is a means to look inside a joint. But arthroscopy is much more than that!

Types of Arthroscopic Surgery

Arthroscopic surgery could potentially be performed on any joint, and as time passes, more and more different joints are being arthroscopically treated. Common types of arthroscopic surgery include:

Knee and shoulder arthroscopy are by far the most common arthroscopic procedures performed. These joints are large enough to manipulate the instruments around, and they are amenable to arthroscopic surgery treatments.

Technically speaking, any joint can be arthroscoped. However, the practicality and the instrumentation available limit our ability to arthroscope every joint for all types of problems. The most common arthroscopic procedures include repairing cartilage and meniscus problems in the knee, and repairing rotator cuff tears in the shoulder.

Performing Arthroscopic Surgery

When an arthroscopy is performed, a camera is inserted into the joint through a small incision (about one centimeter). The arthroscopic surgery camera is attached to a fiberoptic light source and shows a picture of the inside of the joint on a television monitor. The surgeon uses fluid pumped through the joint to aid in visibility and clear debris from the joint. One or more other incisions are made to insert instruments that can treat a variety of conditions. For example, a shaver can be inserted to trim torn cartilage from a joint.

Common Arthroscopic Procedures

Many joint problems are amenable to arthroscopic surgery. As mentioned above, knee and shoulder conditions are far more often treated arthroscopically than are other joints; some common arthroscopic procedures include: However, not all conditions are best treated with arthroscopic procedures. A recent controversy arose in the past several years about the effectiveness of arthroscopic surgery in treating osteoarthritis of the knee. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that arthroscopic surgery for treatment of moderate osteoarthritic changes of the knee is no more effective than 'sham surgery,' where incisions are made but no surgery is performed. Talk to your doctor about why arthroscopy may or may not help your condition.

Is arthroscopic surgery safe?
Understand that arthroscopic surgery is a surgical procedure and involves risks. These may include infection, blood clots, problems with anesthesia, etc. These are serious risks and the decision to undergo arthroscopic surgery should be taken seriously. That said, arthroscopic surgery is a "less invasive" procedure, and when performed for the right problem it is often very successful. Ask your doctor for more information about arthroscopic surgery, and talk about the possible risks of undergoing the procedure.

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